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Just Give Me A Reason

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       The summer after the breakup, Nick had been relieved to return to New York and training camp. Every year, the veterans were gathered together before the rookies came and the coach always gave the same speech. Just because they had had a place on the team last year didn’t guarantee them a place this year. They were fighting alongside the rookies for a spot on the roster. Nick understood it and for the first few years of his career he’d taken the warning to heart. Now, though, he felt comfortable in his role as a first or second d-pair. It wasn’t cockiness, but he had a decent feel for the rookies this year and there weren’t four other defenders better than he was.

        Besides for the rest of the summer, he’d poured himself into hockey. He spent days in the gym, working out despite his trainers telling him to ease off a little bit. It was the only way that he could stop thinking about Brandon. His parents had been worried about him, even Tyler had been a little concerned, but there was nothing they could do or say that would make it better. What were you supposed to say to someone who had lost their once in a lifetime relationship? Nobody knew the answer.

        He’d been happy to head to New York, trying to fill up his time so that he wouldn’t fly out to Columbus or call Brandon. And at first it was fine. He felt a bit like a kid returning to school after summer. It was great to meet up with people you hadn’t seen in a long time, grab dinner, drinks, and hang out, but after a while the novelty of it wore off. Nick didn’t realize how much it would hit him when he walked into the Islanders locker room for that first practice of the year- after all it was at training camp in Chicago that he’d first met Brandon.

       He still remembered that day clearly. Afterwards, it was almost as though his life was split into a before and after, pre-Brandon and post-Brandon. Nick had been sitting in his stall, pulling on his skates, feeling the excitement of the room. It was good to have people who had already won the cup around. There was the confidence of being able to win intermixed with the thirst to win again. The year before, Nick had just been focused on staying up with the team, winning a Stanley Cup was only an afterthought. This year, though, he let himself be swept up in the excitement. He greeted a few guys as they came in, but then Brandon arrived, and Nick had never known what it was like to fall in love at first sight, he hadn’t believe it either, but here, Brandon greeted him with a shy smile and Nick knew that he was in trouble. “Hey, I’m Brandon,” he’d said.

        “I’m Nick,” Nick replied.

        “I know,” Brandon had said easily which had taken Nick aback. He wasn’t top billing on the team, he wasn’t even in the top five sold jerseys. But Brandon knew him and he was treating him the way that other rookies treated the veterans. By the end of that first day of training camp, Nick found himself not only hoping that he’d make the team, but also rooting for Brandon.

         Now, as Nick walked into the sparsely populated locker room, the memory of meeting Brandon plagued him. He knew that he would never fall in love with someone like that again. He’d only fallen in love like that once, none of his previous relationships had had the same instantaneous chemistry that his friendship and subsequent relationship with Brandon had had. They were divided up between both locker rooms, the veterans in one and most of the rookies in the other. By the end of the day, that other locker room would probably be half-empty as the coaches made their initial cuts. Nick hadn’t paid much attention to the draft aside from looking at a few stats that Anders had messaged him with. He knew that most of these guys wouldn’t stay up anyways their first time.

        He was pretty quiet, at least more than usual, as he got dressed and made it onto the ice. Most of the rookies were already there, trying to make a good first impression and insure that they wouldn’t be late. His eyes surveyed them, most paired off or in small clumps chatting when he saw a familiar figure.

       For a split second, his heart leapt thinking that it was Brandon. Maybe, somehow, he’d missed it, but maybe Columbus had traded him over the summer, but then the man’s head turned and his face became clearer. It wasn’t Brandon. He felt silly that he’d even thought that it could be. Upon second glance, this guy was thinner, he didn’t have Brandon’s broad shoulders, and he was paler than Brandon would have been after an entire summer. Making eye contact with Nick, he smiled and skated over.

       “Hey, I’m Mat,” the guy- Mat said.

        Nick tried to hide his disappointment. It wasn’t Mat’s fault that he’d hoped that Brandon was here, “Hey, nice to meet you.”

        “Thanks man, it’s crazy, being in New York and everything,” Mat said and Nick smiled, although a little forced.

        “Yeah, it’s a lot,” Nick said.

        “Any advice?” Mat asked.

        “None that you need,” Nick said, “But, I guess, just try and make it through camp, okay?”

        For a while, Mat did. He survived the first day, then the second, and suddenly the vets were even talking about him . The problem was Nick didn’t want him to stay. There was enough resemblance that Nick’s brain confused the two of them. And selfishly, he hoped that Mat would get sent back down, if only so that he could fix this.  And then, when Mat got called into the coach’s office during the last round of cuts, Nick knew that he hadn’t made the team. Part of him felt guilty for wishing that, but a larger part felt relieved.

        “Fuck!” Mat had said as he headed into the locker room after most of the guys had already left. A few, the ones who knew Mat from juniors had stuck around out of curiosity. Nick had stayed out of guilt, as if he had willed it into being.

        A few of the guys had expressed their sympathies to Mat, but people like Josh and Tito were staying and any comfort that they might have provided. Mat hadn’t been rude, but he’d been cold and they’d gotten the message that Mat had wanted to be alone.

        Nick was going to leave as well, but paused. He grabbed Mat’s shoulder while he was packing up his gear and turned him around. Mat was on the verge of tears, something that Nick realized, but politely ignored. It was bad enough to deal with rejection, it was even worse to cry in front of nearly strangers. “Go back to Seattle and become the best. Prove to them that they made the wrong decision, Mat, and then, we’ll see you next year,” Nick said. He knew that next year Mat would stay up as long as he stayed healthy. Mat was that good. “Okay?”

       “Yeah,” Mat said. “I’ll see you next year, then.” 

       Nick’s conscience was a little cleared by the time he left. He hadn’t made Mat be sent back, it’d probably be good for him anyways. And then, just as it started, camp was over, and they had their final team.

       If Nick thought, though, that he would walk away from camp enamored with someone the way he had been with Brandon he was wrong. Training camp ended, the team had been finalized, and Nick just wanted Brandon back.

Chapter Text

For the next year, Nick didn’t spare Mat much thought. He knew the front office was paying attention, but he was focused on the season. His mom told him that things would get better, that during the season he’d be so busy that he wouldn’t have time to even think about Brandon. He wondered when, or if, that would ever happen.

                Anders had tried to intervene at the beginning of November. They weren’t the best of friends, but their shared Minnesota connection and summer training together had created an underlying bond. Nick had never explicitly told Anders about Brandon. He was pretty sure that most of the guys had heard rumors and Nick wasn’t one to hide his sexual orientation- even if he didn’t talk about it often- but he was out to his family and most of his teammates knew one way or another. The only thing that Nick had kept secret, and even at that, more people knew, was that he was in a relationship with Brandon. The best thing about Anders, though, was that he never asked. He just seemed to know and the only indication that he knew that Nick and Brandon had broken up were the occasional empathetic glances that Anders didn’t think Nick noticed while they were training.

                “Want to hang out tonight?” Anders asked after practice one day.

                Nick shrugged, “Sure, what were you thinking of?”

                “Maybe a bar,” Anders said.

                “The usual one?” Nick asked.

                “I was actually thinking of a new one,” Anders said.  

                “Text me the address, then?” Nick asked.

Anders beamed, “For sure, I’ll see you tonight.”

When Nick went to the bar, he ended up triple checking the directions to make sure that he was in the right spot. The place that Anders had picked was a place on the corner, lit up with neon lights, unlike the low-profile places where they usually ventured. And when Nick entered, it was clear that it was a gay bar. It wasn’t over the top, the music didn’t make Nick’s head pound, but it was very clear that this was a gay bar. “Did you mean to pick a gay bar?” Nick asked when he spotted Anders at a table.

Anders grinned, “Yeah.”

Nick smiled, but rolled his eyes, “This isn’t really….. my thing, you know?”

“Yeah, I got that, but you’re single now, and it’s New York,” Anders said, “And a friend of a friend said this was a good place, for you know, celebrities.”

                “Oh God, I need a beer for this,” Nick said. For a moment he wondered if he sent a picture of this place to Brandon, if Brandon would get jealous. Nick doubted it. Brandon wasn’t the type to get jealous, even when Blackhawks fans would openly flirt with Nick.

                It didn’t take much time for Nick to notice the number of guys checking out their table apparently Anders had noticed as well. “See look at all these people who are interested in you. Go talk.”

                “I think they’re more interested in you,” Nick said. A few guys came up to talk to them, clearly interested in Anders, and Anders played the role of the perfect wingman.

                “I’m just here with my friend,” Anders had explained. “He’s single.”

                Nick almost cringed in secondhand embarrassment at Anders obviousness, but tried to make small talk with the guy who was attractive enough, but not Nick’s type. After a few minutes, Nick could see the interest on the guy’s face disappear and when he made a weak excuse to leave the conversation, Nick didn’t even protest.

                “What was that?” Anders asked.

                “I don’t know,” Nick replied.  “Fuck, I’m awful at this.”

                “Well, this is why we’re here,” Anders said.

                “Look, I appreciate this, I really do, but, um, I think Brandon was it for me, and just I’m not really interested.”

                “Are you sure?” Anders asked. “We can leave if you want, then.”

                “Yeah, if that’s okay.”

After that Anders stopped trying to take Nick to gay bars, even though, he had made sure that Nick knew the offer still stood. It didn’t escape the way that Anders would bring his gay friends into conversation, the obvious nudge that Nick ignored, but he knew Anders meant well.

The sharp sting of the breakup had faded into a dull ache, but there were times when it would hit him acutely. Sometimes when he saw something and immediately wanted to text Brandon or send him a funny meme. They were still friends, but something had changed. Nick knew if he texted or called Brandon he’d cave and want him back and that wasn’t going to happen.

So fall turned to winter which turned to spring and Nick just missed Brandon when he realized that he wasn’t going to make plans to visit him in Pittsburgh or go on vacation together. And by the end of the summer, Nick had heard that Brandon was planning on moving in with his new girlfriend and felt silly that he’d been pining all this time that Brandon was in a happy relationship. Maybe if he had tried harder at the bar, he’d happily be in a relationship too.

All that time, he didn’t think about Mat Barzal. But then training camp came around again and it was clear this time that Mat was here to stay. He was on the ice like a rocket, with an energy and excitement for the game that Nick hadn’t seen in a while. Most of the guys had been fatigued from the years of missing out on the playoffs, himself included. Mat wasn’t as disillusioned yet.

“I took your advice,” Mat said after the first day.

“Hm?” Nick asked.

“What you told me last year about being the best. I want to stay this year,” Mat said.

“I really hope you do,” Nick said, “We could use someone like you.”

Mat grinned, “Yeah?”

“For sure, you have a good energy,” Nick said.

 

“’Good energy’?” Johnny asked afterwards with a chuckle.

“Shut up,” Nick said.

 

Sure enough, Mat stayed up. Nick saw the way that he beamed when Coach had announced his name as part of the final team. He’d looked over at Tito almost immediately and grinned, trying to contain his excitement, but Nick saw that they both were thrilled. Why wouldn’t they be? Brandon had looked over at him with that same excitement when he found out that he was going to stay up with the Blackhawks.

“You were right,” Mat said when they were leaving the practice rink.

“It was all you,” Nick said.

“No, I was really, I don’t know, dejected after not making the team last year, and your words gave me something to focus on, so thank you,” Mat said.

Nick flushed a little at the compliment. “You’re welcome.”

Mat reached over and pulled him into a tight hug. For a moment Nick froze, surprised by the sudden gesture, but he pulled Mat in for a tight hug. It was different, more genuine than the hugs between other teammates, but Nick didn’t mind. “It’s gonna be great this year,” Mat said.  

Nick smiled and just hoped that Mat could hang onto that optimism.

Chapter Text

      Nick came to realize that Mat was unlike any other rookie he’d met. The insecurity and timidity that usually came with being in the first year of the NHL, or even after being traded wasn’t apparent in Mat. It wasn’t that he was arrogant- that wasn’t quite it- but Mat was comfortable. He wasn’t sure if it was a comfort that came by knowing some people from juniors or if it was from living with Seids, or maybe it was just Mat. But part of Nick wondered how much of that raw confidence was actually a disguise. He’d seen a glimpse of Mat’s guard come down that day during training camp when he’d been sent back down, but there was no trace of that uncertainty since Mat had been told to stay. He couldn’t even imagine having been that way as a rookie. Even during his second year in the NHL, Nick didn’t walk around with the confidence that Mat did and he certainly never would have approached Seabs or Keith the way that Mat comfortably approached Ebs or even himself.

      It was unsurprising then, when Mat hung around after they’d dispersed after practice, waiting for Nick to finish up. “Want to grab lunch?” Mat asked. For a moment, Nick looked around to make sure that Mat was talking to him.

      “Uh, sure, where did you have in mind?” Nick asked.

      “Some Mexican place that Tito likes I guess,” Mat said, “I don’t know, I didn’t pick it.”

      “Oh, I know the one, it’s pretty good, let me just grab my bag,” Nick said.

      A few of the other guys were waiting with Tito outside the locker room and smiled when they saw Nick join them. “Hey, are we all set then?”

      It was a short walk to the restaurant but after the workout Nick regretted not suggesting that they all drive there. They had to wait just a few minutes while the waiters rearranged two tables together so that they could all fit. Nick sat near the edge, across from Mat and Tito.

      “What’s good here?” Mat asked.

      “I usually get the tacos, but the enchiladas are pretty good too,” Nick said as he looked at the specials for the day. Tacos it was going to be. They were all breaking their meal plan but it was in the name of team bonding which was a good enough excuse in Nick’s mind.

      “I’ll take the tacos,” Nick said when the waitress came by with their drinks to get their order.

       “I’ll take the same,” Mat said as he handed over his menu. He said something else to Nick, but Nick missed it.

      “Hm…” Nick said when he realized that Mat was waiting for an answer.

      “Oh, I just asked what it was like to win the Stanley Cup?”

      Nick froze. How to describe winning it? It was the best feeling in the world lifting that trophy that most of them only dreamed about holding when they were children. It was even better with Brandon standing next to him.

      Throughout the night Nick and Brandon kept being handed beer after beer. They were exhausted, but now it was all over and they had won. Nick had been told that Stanley Cup was the lightest thirty five pounds he’d ever lift and it was true. He held the cup over his head and skated it across the ice. He turned and saw Brandon staring at him with a mix of awe, pride, and love in his eyes. They’d done it. Even better, they’d done it together.

      The locker room was full of champagne and beer and chaos as the reporters tried to follow the excitement in the room. Nick and Brandon had stayed there for a while, but eventually Brandon tapped the back of Nick’s head and nudged him outside the locker room. In the midst of the chaos, they were able to find an empty training room. Any injuries or aches were forgotten now that they’d won.

      Nick locked the door behind them, insuring nobody would end up seeing more than they’d intended and turned to Brandon who looked at him greedily.

      “God, this is all I’ve been thinking about since we won,” Brandon said as he pressed Nick up against the wall and kissed him.

      “Really?” Nick said as he nipped at Brandon’s jaw. Brandon instinctively dug fingers into Nick’s hair.

      "You have no idea how much I just wanted to kiss you on the ice,” Brandon said.

      "Uh huh,” Nick said and he reached a hand under Brandon’s shirt and went to lift it over his head. “God, you’re so gorgeous.”

      Brandon just laughed and, in the moment, Nick never thought he’d seen Brandon happier.

      “I love you so much,” Brandon said as he quickly dealt with Nick’s T-shirt and stripped his pants off of him. He sank down to his knees and looked up at Nick with such affection and trust and love that that alone almost made Nick come.

      He held Nick’s hips back as he took him in. Over the years, he’d gotten accustomed to what Nick liked, what drove him to the edge. He trembled as he began to lose control,

      “I can-” Nick started, but his brain was a little foggy post-orgasm.

      “It’s fine,” Brandon said as he picked up his shirt from the floor. “They’ll probably start looking for us anyways if we don’t get back soon.”

      Nick sighed, the last thing he wanted was to rejoin the team. He just wanted to be with Brandon and celebrate with him in their own private way.

      “Just wait til we get home,” Brandon whispered in Nick’s ear as they headed back into the hallway. “It’ll be worth it.”

      “It’s the best feeling in the world, you’ll know in a couple of years,” Johnny answered when it was clear that Nick was lost in his thoughts. Nick sent his friend a grateful glance and smiled.

      “Yeah, it’s great,” Nick said, effectively shutting down the conversation. Mat wasn’t the most insightful of them, but even he got the hint that it wasn’t a subject to approach. Mat frowned slightly and Nick knew that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but he just for one day didn’t want to think about Brandon. It was becoming less painful, but it still wasn’t easy.

      Thankfully, Nick quietness was excused when they got their food and he picked up a taco. One bite was all it took for him to remember why this place had become a team favorite. “Good, isn’t it?” Nick asked.

      Mat gave a faint smile, “Yeah, it’s great.”

 

      They were walking back to the rink, ending up in pairs to navigate the narrow sidewalks. Nick noticed that Mat had slowed down and lingered towards the back, something clearly on his mind.

      “Hey, Nick, I’m really sorry,” Mat said.

      “What for?” Nick asked.

      “Just, I feel like I shouldn’t have asked about the Stanley Cup,” Mat said, “I’m sorry.”

      Nick sighed, “You didn’t do anything wrong, really. I just- I have bittersweet memories about winning the cup.”

      Mat blinked and Nick knew he had no idea what he was talking about.

      “Winning the cup was great, but some of the other things, it’s just hard now.”

      “I didn’t know,” Mat said.

      “I know, don’t worry about it,” Nick said with a reassuring smile.

      “If you ever want to talk-”

      “I’m fine, thanks,” Nick said, “Seriously, don’t give it a second thought.”

      “Uh, I was actually wondering,” Mat said, “You like Jay-Z, right?”

      “Yeah,” Nick said.

      “Uh, so I have an extra ticket for when he comes to Barclay’s,” Mat said, “Did you want to go?”

      “You got tickets?” Nick asked.

      “Yeah,” Mat said with a smile. “Are you game?”

      “Sure, sounds great!” Nick said.

      “Awesome,” Mat said. “Well, I’ll text you about it, okay?”

      “Sounds good,” Nick said.

      Johnny gave Nick a knowing look and waited until Mat had caught up with Tito towards the front of the pack to say anything. “Rookie’s got a crush,” Johnny said.

      Nick chuckled, “That’s just Mat. Besides, you don't even know if he's into guys. Even if he was, it’d probably be on Ebs or JT.”

      “He wouldn’t be the only rookie to have a crush on you,” Johnny reminded him.

      “No,” Nick said, “It’s not like that.”

      “If you say so,” Johnny said.

      “It’s not like that for me,” Nick said even though he still thought that Johnny was off base, “I’m not interested.”

       “Okay,” Johnny said, “I’m just saying...”

Chapter Text

    They were going to the concert on Friday and set to fly out Saturday morning with the team. Nick cringed at the details, he wasn’t as young as he used to be and late nights that crawled past one or two in the morning were becoming more daunting. It was little things like this that made the age difference between them seem to stark. For Mat, an all-nighter was no feat, but for Nick the early morning hours would just be miserable.

    Nevertheless, he was looking forward to the concert. The last concert he’d been to, or at least the most memorable one in recent memory was one he’d gone to with Brandon when they were in Pittsburgh.

    They’d been carefully covered with baseball hats and dark glasses so that they could go unnoticed in the crowd. Nick had laughed when Brandon had suggested going to a Fall Out Boy concert, blushing faintly when he’d said they were coming near Pittsburgh.

    “Back from your emo middle school days?” Nick had teased.

    “Shut up, I know you used to listen to them too,” Brandon said.

    Nick smiled, “Yeah, okay, I did.”

    “ So do you want to go?” Brandon asked.

    “Yeah, that sounds fun,” Nick said. And it did sound fun. Things had been strained between them since the end of the season when Brandon had won the cup again, this time without Nick. He remembered the promise Brandon had made to him the last time they won the cup, but it was different this time. Brandon had won it without him and that hunger for a second cup hadn’t died. It was painful seeing Brandon carry the cup and him having to watch from the stands. Worse yet, Brandon was aware of the difference, aware that this cup wasn’t as fun as the last one and aware of the envy that Nick had that he knew he shouldn’t.

    There was a bitterness that overshadowed this win. Nick was at the parade, Nick was at the cup party, but he was in the background. He was along for the ride just as a spectator, as Brandon’s boyfriend and that was it.

    Now, though in Pittsburgh, they were away from most of the chaos of the Stanley Cup win and going to a concert just seemed nice. It seemed simple even though nothing in their lives was simple. Brandon’s rights had been traded to the Blue Jackets in a move that was almost a slap in the face. Two cups later and there was no loyalty. The trade hurt. Nick understood that better than anyone, but there was nothing that he could do to help. But for one night, they were just going to be a couple going to a concert. Tonight, it was going to be simple.

     They’d splurged for good seats and the dimness of the venue afforded them even more privacy. Nobody here cared about them. They just cared about the band. After a few minutes after the band came on, Nick felt Brandon’s arms wrap around his waist and pull him close. He hazarded a glance around but nobody was looking at them.

    “I love you,” Brandon said.

    “I love you, too,” Nick said. They stood like that for a while, nearly flush against each other dancing awkwardly to the music and it wasn’t the first time that Nick thought things were perfect. That moments like this, the mundane ones were amazing. It was a glimpse into their future. When hockey was over and they were able to live openly together, this is what it would be like. Even though Nick knew that hockey was only temporary and that he should enjoy it while it lasts, he was looking forward to those days.  

    “See, I knew you knew the lyrics,” Brandon said when he caught Nick singing along to the song.

    “Uh huh,” Nick said and leaned back, “I didn’t say I didn’t.”

    “Caught you,” Brandon said and Nick could hear the smile in his voice.

    Nick tried to suppress that memory as he headed towards Barclay’s to meet up with Mat. He wasn’t really sure what to wear, so he’d just grabbed his go-to outfit and made his way to where they’d agreed to meet. Mat was already waiting for him, fiddling with his phone while he waited, but smiled when he saw Nick

    “Hey,” Mat said.

    “Hi,” Nick smiled a little awkwardly. He shuffled with his hands in his pockets a little on edge, but Mat looked completely comfortable.  

    “Hey, um, sorry to bother you,” a woman, someone Nick assumed was a fan, approached them. “I was just wondering if I could get a picture of you guys. My boyfriend’s the biggest Islanders fan and he’ll never believe that I saw you guys.”

    “Sure,” Mat said after he glanced over to Nick, “Did you want to get in the picture?”

    “Oh no, that’s fine,” she said as she pulled out her cell phone. Nick got closer to Mat and smiled while they waited for her to snap the photo. “Thanks so much guys, I hope you have a great rest of the season.”

    “Hey, actually, would you mind actually taking a photo for us?” Mat asked as he handed over his cellphone to her.

    “Sure,” She said as they posed for another picture.

    Mat thanked her and they headed into the arena. “I wanted to remember this,” Mat offered as an explanation to Nick. He could see over Mat’s shoulder that he was already posting it to Instagram. They showed their tickets and passed through security and Nick wondered if anyone else was coming.

    “Just us?” Nick asked when they reached their seats.

    “Yeah,” Mat said, “I’m just glad you wanted to come.” Maybe it was just friendliness that for most people would be considered flirting, Nick wasn’t sure. Johnny’s suggestion weighed in the back of Nick’s mind. He was certain there were other teammates who would have come along to a Jay-Z concert. Hell, even JT who practically lived under a rock would have gone. Nick wondered if Mat had even asked the others, but when the opener came on, the thought slipped his mind. He glanced over to Mat whose eyes were glued to the stage. The flashing lights occasionally illuminated his face and he looked over at Nick. “You having fun?” Mat shouted above the noise of the crowd.

    “Yeah, yeah it’s really great, thanks,” Nick said and it was. His first concert in a while and it was great. Brandon hated this music anyways.

Chapter Text

    The concert was fun. It was a little louder than Nick liked and when he left he had a headache but he’d had fun. Mat had had fun too, maybe a little too much as he didn’t think twice about his embarrassing dancing, but Nick just laughed at him. “We should do this again,” Mat said.

    “Yeah, it was great,” Nick said realizing that it was true.

    “What was the last concert that you went to?” Mat asked.

    “Uh… Fall Out Boy,” Nick said, “2015.”

    “Omg, were you an emo kid?” Mat teased.

    “That’s what-” Nick cut himself off, “No, I wasn’t.”

    “I could see you being one,” Mat said.

    “Oh my God, no,” Nick laughed, “I wasn’t.”

    “What were you like, then?” Mat asked.

    “Normal, I guess,” Nick shrugged, “I was always practicing, going to games, you know, doesn’t leave time for much else.”

    “I bet the girls were all over you,” Mat said.

    “Sure you aren’t talking about yourself?” Nick asked.

    “Never really was interested in girls,” Mat said.

    “Guys then?” Nick asked.

    “Not really,” Mat frowned, “You know how it is, you choose hockey or relationships. I wasn’t going to be the first out player, not as a rookie, so I chose hockey.”

    Nick saw his opening, but Mat’s words made him feel guilty. Maybe if he and Brandon had been brave, Mat wouldn’t have had to worry about being the first openly gay player. Maybe he would have never have had to make that decision.  

    “I’m sorry,” Nick said apologizing for not telling Mat, for not having come out years earlier.

    “I mean don’t feel too bad for me,” Mat said with a wry smile back on his face, “It’s not like I haven’t had my own fun.”

    “Well, that’s good, I guess,” Nick said.

    “You’re not gonna be weird about this now, are you?” Mat asked, the frown now back on his face as he gauged Nick’s reaction.

    “No, come on, you know I wouldn’t care about this thing,” Nick said.

    “Some guys get weird, I guess.”

    “I’m not nearly narcissistic enough to think that you’d like me of all people,” Nick said with a smile.

    “Right, well uh, thanks for being cool with this,” Mat said.

    “Yeah, of course, thanks for telling me, and if another concert comes up, let me know, I’ll go with you.”

    “Will do, see you tomorrow morning- well, in a few hours, now, I guess,” Mat said.  

    “See you,” Nick said.

 

Are you and the rookie screwing? Nick winced at the text message he’d received once he got home. Shawsy must have seen the photo Mat had added to Instagram.

    No. Nick said.

    He’d probably be up for it, Shawsy replied.

    What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Nick texted back.

    I mean, I’ve heard he’s pretty much up for anything.

    “What the fuck are you talking about?” Nick snapped when he decided to call Andrew.

    “Hello to you too,” Shawsy said.

    “I mean, you know about the national team, right?” Shaw said with the condescending tone that Nick had come to recognize when Andy knew something he didn’t.

    “No, I don’t know about the national team,” Nick said.

    Shawsy chuckled, “Oh that’s right, sometimes I forget you’re American.”

    “What happened?” Nick asked waiting to get on with the story.

    “Kid had fun at World Juniors, went back to a different teammates room every night,” Shawsy said, “It was legendary, enough at least to make news in the National Team.”

    “Like you’ve ever been on the National Team,” Nick said.

    “No, but Tazer has,” Shaw said, “I’m just trying to warn you, okay. Look, Mat’s not the type of guy that you’re gonna bring home to your parents. He’s a fuck ‘em and chuck ‘em guy and last time that I checked you weren’t into that.”

    “He’s twenty years-old, Andy,” Nick said, “

    “Yeah, and Brandon was even younger,” Shawsy said.

    “It’s different,” Nick said.

    “I certainly hope so.”

    “Besides, you don’t know him,” Nick snapped.

    “Maybe not, but I do know you,” Andy said.

    “You don’t know me either,” Nick said, “Not anymore.”

    “Shut the hell up, I know you. You’re still hung up on Brandon, and pretty soon you’re gonna be hung up on this kid too and then you’re going to be traded again and I don’t want to see that happen.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “The trade,” Shaw said, “Oh God, you didn’t know.”

    “Know what?”

    “What?”

    “I shouldn’t,” Shaw said.

    “Just tell me already,” Nick said.

    “Why do you think you were traded?” Andy asked.

    “Because of the playoffs…” Nick said.

    “That might have been the official reason, but they were looking to get rid of one of you after the front office found out about your relationship. It was just a matter of time.”

    “That’s not true. They said it didn’t matter,” Nick felt sick.

    “You really believe all that You Can Play shit, don’t you?” Andy asked, “They saw you as a distraction . And I know the Islanders are just as old-fashioned as the Blackhawks. You start fucking around with the rookie you’ll be gone.”

    “Fuck you,” Nick said with tears burning his eyes.

    “I’m just trying to look out for you, okay. I wish things were different, but they aren’t.” Nick hung up to phone and sat back. If the front office hadn’t found out, he wouldn’t have been traded. He would have still been a Blackhawk and so would Brandon. They would have never spent the seasons apart and they would have still been together. All this time, Nick had thought if he played better he could have stayed, but it was never the case. As long as they were together, they would have never been able to remain Blackhawks and for the first time since he was younger, since he’d had the fear of coming out to his parents, Nick thought it would have been easier if he was different.

 

    Nick didn’t get much sleep during a night when he was going to get very little sleep anyways. By the time he reached the airport, he’d already had two cups of coffee and still felt exhausted.

    “Rough night?” Johnny asked when Nick walked up to them.

    “Just a little tired,” Nick replied.

    “Stayed out too late, old man?” Mat asked.

    “I’m fine,” Nick said tersely.

    “Really? Because you don’t look too good,” Mat said turning serious.

    “Mat, I’m fine, just leave me alone,” Nick snapped.

    Mat’s face fell and he flinched at the foreign tone. Nick rarely snapped at a teammate and he’d never snapped at Mat before. He just wanted to be left alone today and even though he felt guilty about how he snapped at Mat, it wasn’t about him. When the boarded the plane he headed to the back and put in his earbuds, a clear warning to leave him alone and they did. Somehow, though, while he stared out the window of the plane, he didn’t feel better.

Chapter Text

            One of the benefits of being a veteran was not having to share a room with anyone. Nick was relieved that he could just drop his suitcase in the middle of the floor and lay down on the bed. He didn’t even bother taking off his suit before lying back and staring at the ceiling. He’d felt off since the phone call with Shawsy. There were so many what ifs that played out, like a thousand different possibilities of what his life could have been if things were different, if he’d been allowed to stay in Chicago. He wondered if instead of going to bed alone in a hotel room far from

            Mat was ignoring him, that much was clear when he came down for breakfast and Mat didn’t even turn to look at him. Tito, though, just glared at him while he sat next to Mat. It was like he was Mat’s protector and guardian and even though Nick wanted to tell him he wasn’t a threat, that they’ve known each other for two years now, he didn’t. Instead, he piled a plate high with food and sat next to Johnny.

            “What?” Nick asked when Johnny looked over at him.

            “What’s going on with you?” Johnny asked.

            “Nothing,” Nick shrugged.

            “Your rookie’s sad,” Johnny said as he nodded towards Mat.

            “He’s not my rookie,” Nick said, “Besides, it’s none of his business.”

            Johnny just rolled his eyes, “Whatever this is, you need to get it together.”

            “It’s none of yours,” Nick said but Johnny didn’t even flinch.

            “Yeah yeah, mind your own business, I got that,” Johnny said as he went to grab more food.

 

            The game against the Flyers was scrappy. It always was with people like Manning on the team, but if there was any consolation, it was that there was no rivalry between the two teams. Sure, they were in the same division, but the games between the Flyers and the Penguins and the Islanders and the Rangers were always more intense. There was history, though, between him and Claude Giroux, going back a couple of seasons when they first fought. Today’s game wasn’t scrappier than usual but Nick was in a bad mood and after a few too many hits against the first and second line, he was ready to go. He approached Giroux who seemed surprised to see Nick coming towards him, particularly after how their last fight ended.

            “You wanna go again?” Claude asked.

            “Really? Yeah,” Nick said.

            “Yeah?” Claude seemed surprised, but Nick had already dropped his gloves. Nick wasn’t a fighter, never had been, but he was proud of himself that he managed a few good punches.

            “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Johnny demanded as he followed Nick into his hotel room. Nick just adjusted the ice pack along his jaw where Claude had landed a good punch.

            “Nothing,” Nick said.

            “Pull yourself together,” Johnny snapped, “You’re a mess. I haven’t seen you this way since…”

            “Since Brandon,” Nick filled in for him, “Yeah.”

            “Did something happen?” Johnny asked.

            “I- No,” Nick said and Johnny clearly didn’t believe him, but he regarded him with concern and skepticism.

“If you need to talk…”

“I know, I can come to you,” Nick said.

“I think some guys are gonna watch highlights of the other games if you want to come. Your fight might even make it on there.”

 

 About an hour later, there was a knock on the door. “Go away Johnny,” Nick said, but when he opened the door, he was surprised to see Mat there. After his outburst at the airport, Mat had stayed his distance and understandably so. But he was here now.

            “Can I come in?” Mat asked.

            “Yeah, sure,” Nick said, “I’m not going to be much company though.”

            Mat didn’t reply but frowned as he saw the bruise developing along Nick’s cheek. It was slow, painstakingly so, that he reached out to touch it gently. He brushed his thumb over it with such care that Nick flinched.

            “Sorry,” Mat mumbled as he jerked his hand away.

            “No, it was fine,” Nick said.

            “What’s wrong with you?” Mat asked as he sat down on the bed.

            “Nothing,” Nick said.

            “You’re not a fighter,” Mat said.

            “It happens, I’ve fought Claude before,” Nick shrugged.

             “Why are you so determined not to let anyone get close to you?” Mat exclaimed. “You’ve pushed Johnny away, you’re pushing me away. At first, I thought…”

            “What?” Nick asked.

            “I thought it was because I told you that I was gay, that maybe you were disgusted by having a gay teammate.”

            “Oh, Mat, fuck,” Nick winced. He hadn’t even thought about that. The timing matched up though. Their last conversation Mat had come out to him and in the morning, Nick had pushed him away. “It’s not that, I promise it’s not that. I… I had a phone call after I got back home that night. That’s why I’ve been off lately.”

            “Was it bad?” Mat asked.

            “It… yeah, it was bad,” Nick sighed, “It’s been what, four years, and the trade still messes me up. It’s so stupid.”

            Mat looked unsure about what he was supposed to say or do.

            “All this time, I thought it was because that terrible last season, if I’d played better I wouldn’t have been traded. But all this time, it was me, they just didn’t like me,” Nick said and it was painful to admit.

            “Do you wish you were still there?” Mat asked.

            “I don’t- I don’t know,” Nick said. Chicago was where Brandon was. Chicago had been his home, his team for years. And he liked the guys, he liked New York, but it wasn’t home. It never had become home for him.

            Mat reached out and pulled Nick towards him. Without much protest, Nick allowed him to pull him down to the bed. He held Nick’s hand against the mattress and rested up against Nick’s shoulder. The gesture was painfully intimate as if physical contact would provide some comfort to Nick. He couldn’t remember the last time that someone had been so close. Well, he could- Brandon. He’d forgotten what it was like to feel that weight on him, that sort of trust that extended beyond just teammates.

            “I’m sorry,” Mat said.

            “I don’t hate it here,” Nick said, “I just-”

            “It’s not home,” Mat finished.

            “Yeah,” Nick said.

            “I had no idea,” Mat said.

            “I didn’t want you to,” Nick said, “It’s not something that’s… I don’t want to seem ungrateful.”

            “It’s okay to not be happy here,” Mat said, “I mean I want you to be happy here, I want the Islanders to be your team, but I don’t blame you if it’s not.”

            “I think it could be,” Nick said.

Chapter Text

            “Hey, we were thinking about going golfing,” Mat said. “Did you want to come?”

            “I think I’m gonna pass,” Nick said. “It looks like it’s gonna rain soon anyways,” he clarified after Mat’s face fell. After that conversation that they’d had in Philadelphia Mat had been trying. They’d hung out before, Nick had considered them friends, but now Mat was making a visible effort to extend invitations to him. “But did you want to grab dinner later?”

            “Sure,” Mat said and brightened. “Where did you want to go?”

            “I can cook,” Nick said.

            “Are you sure?” Mat asked.

            “Yes, I can cook, you know,” Nick said with a smile.

            “Want me to bring anything?” Mat asked.

            “I got it covered, thanks,” Nick said. He’d maybe over-exaggerated how good of a cook he was to Mat, but he did have a few solid recipes in his arsenal that his mother had taught him. She’d made sure he knew how to cook a few things decently before heading off to college. He’d learned a few more things after that, picking up a few recipes from teammates and their wives along the way.

 

            Mat showed up just as Nick was finishing up the pasta. He looked a little nervous as Nick opened the door. “Hey, you’re just in time,” Nick said. Mat had changed, wearing nice jeans and a button down, more formal than most of the things Nick had seen him wear.

            “You didn’t have to dress up,” Nick said with a chuckle.

            “It’s fashion,” Mat said, “Maybe you could try sometime.”

            “Hey, be careful, I’m the one making your food,” Nick said.

            “You wouldn’t dare,” Mat said.

            “No, I wouldn’t, but at the rate you’re going…” Nick threatened.

            “So, we’re playing Chicago next week,” Mat said.

            “Yeah,” Nick sighed. He’d been trying to push that thought to the back of his mind. For a while, it had worked so long as he They were pretty much out of the playoffs at this point. It wasn’t definitive, there was still a small glimmer of hope that the young guys held onto, but Nick had been through this enough to know they were out. There were too many contingencies for it to work. They had to win almost every game and have the other teams in their division lose. Nick was optimistic, but he wasn’t delusional. The playoffs were out of reach this year. For the younger people like Mat and Tito, it wasn’t a big deal. Sure, they shared in the disappointment of the vets, but they weren’t as restless.

            “What do you think?” Mat asked.

            “About? Playing Chicago?” Nick asked.

            “Yeah,” Mat said.

            Nick shrugged, “It’s a game, just like every other one.”

            “It’s not though, is it?” Mat asked.

            “It’s always hard going back there,” Nick said, “It was my home for years, those memories don’t go away.”

            “Are you planning on meeting up with any old teammates?” Mat asked.

            “I don’t know,” Nick said, “Maybe Brandon.”

            “Saad?”

            “Yeah, we used to be close,” Nick said.

            “But not any more?” Mat asked.

            “Not really, anyways, it’s kind of boring to talk about,” Nick said, “Do you have any plans for summer?”

            “A few things here and there, I’m helping a friend out with his hockey camp. Ethan Bear, not sure if you know him.”

            “Edmonton Oilers?” Nick asked.

            “Yeah,” Mat lit up, “And I’m probably gonna go on vacation, still looking for a trainer though.”

            “Anders and I have a pretty good one that we’ve been going to for the past couple of seasons,” Nick said.

            “Yeah?” Mat asked.

            “I mean, he’s in Minnesota, but I can give you his info if you want,” Nick said.

            “That’d be great, thanks,” Mat said.

            “Thinking about coming to Minnesota?” Nick asked.

            Mat shrugged and smiled, “Gotta make sure that you’re keeping up with training.”

            Nick rolled his eyes, “Not my first offseason.”

            Mat laughed, “Can’t let you slack off then.”

            “Come to Minnesota, then, you can stay at my place,” Nick offered.

            “Seriously?” Mat asked.

            Nick smiled, “Yeah, I’ll show you all the fun places around Minneapolis.”

            “That sounds great,” Mat said.

 

             Johnny had insisted that they grab lunch after practice. Nick had agreed even though he was pretty sure that it wasn’t a question, but he also knew that his friend needed a break from the kids sometimes.

            “So I heard that you and Mat had dinner last night,” Johnny said.

            Nick just rolled his eyes, “Yeah, so?”

            “Nothing,” Johnny said with a smile, “I just think you guys are cute together.”

            “It’s not like that,” Nick said.

            “Are you sure?”

            “I’m still not over… he’s twenty years old, he’s not looking for anything serious.”

            “Has he told you that?” Johnny asked.

            “He doesn’t have to,” Nick said with a faint smile, “I’ve heard things and besides were you serious when you were twenty?”

            Johnny laughed, “No, but I was a dumbass at the time. You, though, you weren’t much older-”

            “That’s different,” Nick said.

            “How is it different?” Johnny asked.

            “I was barely older than Brandon,” Nick said, “And we were both over twenty-one when we got together.”

            “Okay, so if twenty-one is that important to you then wait until the summer,” Johnny said.

            “You don’t meet the love of your life when you’re twenty-one,” Nick protested. “At least most people don’t.”

            “Is that what you think Brandon is?” Johnny asked.

            “I don’t know. I mean, he’s it for me,” Nick said, “I’m not… even if Mat has feelings for me, and that’s a big if, I’m not there.” Johnny just frowned.

            “I didn’t say you were in love with him, but you’re not not interested though,” Johnny said.

             “He’s a good kid,” Nick said, “But he’s also just twenty years old.”

            “Twenty-one soon,” Johnny said.

            “Anyways, I think I’m going to talk to Brandon in Chicago,” Nick said.

            Johnny froze, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

            “Why?” Nick asked.

            “I just think that if things were going to work out they would have by now,” Johnny said.

            “Not everyone has it as easy as you and Sheena,” Nick snapped and Johnny knew that he’d hit a nerve.

            “I just don’t want to see you get hurt, man,” Johnny said.

            “We’re still friends,” Nick said.

            “I just hope it’s okay,” Johnny said.

 

            Nick had texted Brandon before they’d flown into Chicago to see if he wanted to meet up.

            Brandon’s response had been almost instantaneous and enthusiastic, and Nick boarded the plane with butterflies in his stomach in a way that he hadn’t felt in years. He’d texted Brandon the hotel’s address, one that was close to the rink and Brandon promised to come pick him up.

            They were set to meet up for a late lunch, and Nick nervously waited in his hotel room, fiddling with his outfit and second guessing it. He hated the way that even after all this time, Brandon still make him nervous.

            There was a knock on his door and he was expecting Brandon, but instead Mat was outside. “Hey,” Nick said.

            “Hey, want to give us a tour of the city?” Mat asked.

            “I’m actually meeting a friend, Mat,” Nick said, “But I can give you some suggestions about places to go.”

            “That’s okay,” Mat said and Nick noticed the way his face fell, “We’ll figure it out, have fun, though.”

            “Thanks, let me know where you end up,” Nick said. Nick’s phone vibrated with a text from Brandon to let him know that he’d just made it to the hotel and was heading up to Nick’s room. “Well, I better go,” Nick said and waved his phone to Mat.

            “Yeah, yeah,” Mat said as they both headed into the hall. Nick waited by the elevators, waiting for Brandon to arrive on their floor as Mat headed towards his room that he shared with Tito.

            Before long, the doors opened and Brandon headed out of the crowded elevator.

            “Hi,” Nick said.

            “Hey,” Brandon replied, “I missed you.”

            It was instinct that Nick closed the gap between them and hugged Brandon, “I missed you, too.”

            “There’s a new restaurant I was thinking about,” Brandon said, “It just opened a couple of months ago, I think you’d like it.”

            “Is it close?” Nick asked.

            “Not too far away,” Brandon said.

            “Sounds good,” Nick said.

            “Come on,” Nick heard Johnny say further down the hall as he pulled Mat towards his room. Nick had completely forgotten that he was still there, but he didn’t care. If Mat put two and two together, it was fine. If anything, it would save Nick the awkward conversation that he always found himself putting off when it came to new friends. He glanced over the Mat who Johnny was shepherding away and saw the way he froze. Maybe that awkward conversation would still happen, Nick probably should have told him a while ago, but any sort of guilt was quickly forgotten as they headed down to Brandon’s car.

Chapter Text

            “It’s so good to see you,” Nick said, not even bothering to hide his enthusiasm.

            “You too. I was really happy you texted,” Brandon said. They hadn’t been the same since they broke up. It wasn’t that Nick was mad at Brandon, he couldn’t fault him for wanting a partner who could actually be there for him but talking and texting had been painful.

            They’d arrived at the restaurant and sure enough, Brandon had chosen well. It was a nicer restaurant, though not too nice that it required a dress code and had a wide array of healthy options. At this time of day, it was relatively uncrowded, and they took a seat towards the back so that they could talk privately.

            “There were some things I actually wanted to talk to you about,” Nick said.

            “Yeah?” Brandon asked.

            “Um, yeah, I was thinking about maybe trying to come back to Chicago,” Nick said.

            “What?” Brandon asked, a smile lighting up his face, “Really? Are there talks about it?”

            “No, no, they haven’t said anything about a trade, but I was considering asking for one,” Nick said.

            “Are things that bad with the Islanders?” Brandon asked.

            “I mean, the team’s not doing well, yeah, but that’s not the reason why,” Nick said. Brandon’s face scrunched up pensively. “It’s not home. It never became home even after all these years. And at first, I thought it was Chicago that was home, but now I realize that it’s you, it’s always been you.

            “And I know you’re in a relationship and I’d never try and break you up or anything,” Nick said, “But if there’s any chance that we could have a future together, I have to try.”

            “Nick-”

            “And I know we did things all wrong when you were in Columbus, I realize that. I should have fought more for our relationship, maybe then I should have tried to get a trade to Columbus, I don’t know, but I miss you, I miss us, and I just wanted to let you know where I was at,” Nick said.

            “Nick-” Brandon said and Nick couldn’t bear to look up at him, “I thought you knew.”

            “Knew what?” Nick asked, his tongue thick in his mouth.

            “I asked her to marry me a few months ago, we’re getting married this summer.”  

            “Oh, great, that’s great,” Nick said. “Does she know about us?”  

           “She knows I dated a teammate,” Brandon said slowly, “But she doesn’t know it was you. I wasn’t, I wouldn’t do that to you. She might have put two and two together, but she’s never brought it up.”

           “Great, great, I’m so happy for you,” Nick said.

           “Nick-” Brandon said sadly.

           “Sorry, I mean I didn’t mean any of it, you know?” Nick said, “

           “Nick. I’m sorry,” Brandon said.

           “I have to go,” Nick said.

           “Let me take you back,” Brandon said.

           “No, it’s fine,” Nick said and fished out a few tens to cover his half-eaten meal. He backed up quickly, too fast and knocked over the chair in his hurry. “Shit!” He said as he tried to right the chair. Everyone had turned to see the commotion and Nick felt their piercing eyes on him.

           “Nick, calm down,” Brandon said.

           “I have to go,” Nick turned away and all but ran out of the restaurant. His eyes burned with unshed tears of humiliation and hurt as he hurried through the Chicago streets. He hadn’t been following Brandon on Instagram to see the news but someone should have told him. Shawsy had to have known. Nick thought back to Johnny’s trepidation about him meeting up with Brandon. He had known that Brandon was engaged, he had to have, that explained his warning: I don’t want you to get hurt.

 

           He went back to the hotel, thankfully not being noticed by any fans on the street. As he headed towards his room, he saw most of the guys were clustered in Ladd’s room, the door wide open as they were watching ESPN.

           “Hey Nick,” someone yelled from inside the room. He’d tried to slip past and head to his room, but now he knew he couldn’t just walk past. He walked inside and they all looked to greet him. He didn’t know what he looked like- he could only imagine, but when they saw him, their easy going expressions shifted to concern.

           “Nick-” Cal started, but seeing the sympathetic look on his face just enraged Nick.

           “You knew didn’t you?” Nick asked. Johnny, Cal, and Andrew just looked up at him with sad eyes.

           “Nick-”

           “You all knew and I just made myself look like a fucking idiot?” Nick said with a lump in his throat and shame burning in his eyes.

           “What’s going on?” Tito turned to ask Mat.

           “I don’t know,” Mat said.

           “Come on,” Johnny stood up and tried to gently grab Nick’s arm to pull him outside, but Nick just shrugged him off.

           “Fuck you,” Nick said and stormed out. All the veterans had known. His whole team had known about Brandon, everyone who knew that they had been together knew that Brandon had moved on with his life and that Nick hadn’t.

           “Nick!” He heard Mat call after him, but Nick didn’t bother turning around.

           “Leave him alone,” Cal told Mat and Mat listened. Nick walked back to his room alone, ignoring Dennis’s curious glance as he headed to fill up his ice bucket and Nick wanted nothing more than to raid his minifridge, but he couldn’t. They had a game that night. The only thing that could make this day any better was to win, to humiliate the Blackhawks and make them wish that they’d never traded him in the first place.

Chapter Text

   Nick exhaled as he tightened the laces of his skates in the locker room. He hadn’t felt this much pressure that he’d put on himself before a game since the Islanders were fighting to stay in the playoffs. It was all too reminiscent of his first time coming back to Chicago after the trade, the nerves that he had facing the home crowd again, facing his old teammates, facing Brandon. He wanted to show them that they’d made a mistake, that he was just fine without them.

   “Nick,” Brandon called out, but Nick just walked past him.

   “Are you okay?” Tito asked as they headed out to take the ice for warm ups.

   “Yup,” Nick said and tried to put an end to the conversation. He knew that Tito meant well; he hadn’t even had anything to do with the whole Cal/Johnny/Andrew situation. But today, against the Blackhawks, Nick felt like he was fighting not only against the other team, but his own. He kept to himself during the warm ups. He skipped his usual routine with Ladds, instead focusing on puck handling and skating back and forth from the blue line. He didn’t even look at them and he certainly didn’t look across the ice at the Blackhawks.

   The game started and for a little bit, the Islanders were holding their own. But then, they fell apart, of course they did. From the years he was on the team, the Blackhawks had learned Nick’s weaknesses, they knew how to get around his defense and that’s exactly what they did.

   The second line was playing with a fervor that Nick hadn’t seen before. All three of them were good, nobody questioned it, but Mat was hauling that line up and down the ice with a pace that Ebs and Tito were only trying to match. After the fifth goal scored against them, though, they all were just defeated. “Fuck,” Nick said as he slammed his stick against the wall as they headed back to the locker room after the game was over and they were put out of their misery.

   Everyone in the nearby vicinity jumped. It was rare to see Nick get so frustrated from a game and even rarer that he slammed his stick down. The mood of the locker room had taken a downward turn. The tension between Nick and the veterans was now exposed out in the open since the distraction of the immediate game was gone.

   Nick glanced over to Mat who was hunched over in his stall, and saw Tito gently rest a hand on his shoulder, but Nick thought that he had the least to be embarrassed by. They at least tried to have a good game, everyone else just didn’t. Worse yet, despite all the hurt and the anger towards his teammates, Nick was just embarrassed.

   He was embarrassed by what had happened with Brandon and by how he played and by how he was still affected by Chicago even all these years later. Johnny and Cal, at one, point had looked like they were going to approach him, but Nick just glared at them and they backed off. Of course, he had to go through media. They always loved it when former players played against their old teams. Nick said exactly what they wanted him to say. It was good to be back, they didn’t play how they wanted to, they’d change things for next game.

 

   The minifridge had a few beers, none from brands that he particularly liked or would buy himself, but they’d do for now. He knew that in the morning he’d face a bill of overcharged alcohol, but he didn’t care. He’d had restraint after lunch with Brandon because he was a professional, but now, it didn’t matter. They didn’t have another game for two days and Nick knew that by then he’d be feeling better.

   It didn’t make him feel better. It didn’t help him forget. He knew that Brandon had texted him a few times after the game and it was all nice and concerned and very Brandon-like. Are you okay? You had a good game? I’m sorry, I should have told you. I just didn’t want to hurt you.

   Nick should have deleted him, but he didn’t. Instead they remained read in his inbox. He grabbed a few beers from the fridge and opened them. He hadn’t drank much since after they won the Stanley Cup and he had had a hangover that lasted for days. He was about four beers in when there was a knock on the door. He had every intention of ignoring it until the person went away, but when the second and third knocks came, Nick got up to open it.

   “Hey,” Mat said. He looked beyond Nick and saw the beer bottles over his shoulder, “Can I come in?”

   “Uh, yeah,” Nick said as he pushed open the door.  

   “I’m sorry,” Mat said.

   “What? Why?” Nick asked as he tried to focus. The alcohol was starting to take its toll on him and he wasn’t the twenty-one-year-old that he once was.

   “I really wanted to pull out the win for you. We should have won and instead we blew it, and you needed us today and we just let you down and I just think we keep letting you down again and again.”

   “Mat, it’s fine,” Nick said, “I’m not mad at you, I promise. I’m not happy with Cal and Johnny and Ladds, but we’ll be okay.”

   “Do you want to talk about it?” Mat asked.

   “No,” Nick said, “I’m not going to put you in the middle of a teammate skirmish.”

   “But I’d take your side,” Mat said.

   “Mat, it’s not about taking sides, besides you don’t even know what it’s about so why does it matter?” Nick asked.

   Mat frowned, “Because they hurt you, and it shouldn’t happen to someone as amazing as you.”

   “I don’t need you to protect me, Mat,” Nick said.

   “I know. I know you can take care of yourself,” Mat said, “I don’t doubt that, but you shouldn’t have to.”

   “Mat, I’m well on my way to getting drunk,” Nick said, “It’s too late to talk about this.”

   “Can I stay?” Mat asked.

   “And drink? No way, I’m not going to be responsible for getting you drunk.”

   “No,” Mat rolled his eyes, “I promise I won’t drink.”

   “You can stay, I guess, I don’t know how much fun it’ll be for you.”

   Mat shrugged, “We can watch TV, I don’t really care, apparently I am good at cheering people up.”

   “Oh God,” Nick rolled his eyes, but he did manage a smile.

   “See, I told you I was good at this,” Mat smiled and laughed and Nick wondered how it could be so easy and simple. Mat just said what he wanted when he wanted. He didn’t think twice. Maybe if he had been that way and told Brandon how he felt earlier, he wouldn’t be in this position now.

   Nick grabbed another beer and sat down on the bed next to where Mat had taken a spot. He’d changed into more comfortable clothes, some Islanders sweatpants and a warm up shirt and flipped through the channels until he settled on Jimmy Fallon.

   “Is this okay?” Mat asked.

   “It’s fine,” Nick replied and settled it. They watched TV for a while, long enough for the alcohol to set in and sleep to creep up on him. He should have kicked Mat out, he probably shouldn’t have even let him in, but he didn’t have the energy. At some point, he just succumbed to sleep, unconsciously shifting his weight onto Mat’s shoulder and pinning him in place, but Mat didn’t move. He’d just shifted to accommodate the new weight and sent Tito a message to let him know that he probably wouldn’t be back to their room that night. He reached over and turned off the TV taking one last look at Nick before turning off the light. He didn’t know what was wrong, but Nick wasn’t okay, he just hoped that one day he would be.

Chapter Text

   “Hey,” Nick heard a voice by his ear and he nuzzled into the pillows.

   “It’s too early,” he whispered.

   “It’s almost ten o’clock,” Brandon said.

   “Okay, fine, I’m too hungover,” Nick said. His head and body ached, the toll from the long season and the playoffs was now catching up with him, but he was so happy.  

   “Come on,” Brandon said, “We have a big day ahead of us.” Brandon’s hand pressed against the small of Nick’s back, urging him to turn closer to him.

   “I know, which is exactly why we should still be asleep,” Nick mumbled, though he was starting to come out of the fog of sleep.

   “I think I could think of a couple of reasons to wake up,” Brandon said as he flipped them so he was hovering over Nick.

   “Really?” Nick said with a grin.

   “Yeah, celebratory sex,” Brandon said.

   “Like we’ve ever needed an excuse,” Nick said as he propped himself up and pulled Brandon onto his lap. He pulled Brandon down to him level and kissed him. It was less desperate than the previous night. They were still caught up in the thrill of the win, hyped off of the beer and the alcohol that they’d consumed. Now, they still had enough time to enjoy themselves and take their time before they had to go to parade.

   “I love you so much,” Brandon said in between kisses and Nick just smiled. There was nothing better than this, winning the cup with the man he loved most in the world. “Can I…?” Brandon asked as he grabbed a condom from their dresser.

   “Yeah,” Nick said. He didn’t mind bottoming though it was rare, especially during the season. It was almost painful to watch the care and consideration that was etched on Brandon’s face as he prepared him.  

   When Brandon pushed in, Nick just dug his fingers into his skin, trying to adjust. Brandon waited with a patience, that like with most things, was unwavering.

   “Move,” Nick choked out, and Brandon did.

   They’d been together long enough that they knew each other’s bodies well enough. Brandon knew exactly how to move to push Nick to the edge almost embarrassingly quickly and Nick knew by the way that Brandon’s breathing stuttered for a moment that he was close as well.  

   “Brandon,” Nick said as complete sentences failed him. Thankfully, Brandon understood and picked up the pace, finishing shortly thereafter.

   It took a moment for Nick to be able to think coherently again and he just sank back into the bed trying to catch his breath while Brandon tried to clean up a little bit.

   “You okay?” Brandon asked when he came back into the room.

   “Yeah,” Nick sighed happily.  

   “The next time we win the Cup, you and me, I’m gonna ask you to marry me,” Brandon said.

   Nick’s eyes sprang open, “What?”

   “I want to marry you,” Brandon said with a smile, “Not now, of course, we’re too young and our careers are just beginning, and I know that, but the next time that we win a cup together, I want to ask you to marry me.”

   Nick was completely alert now, “Are you serious?”

   “Yeah, I mean don’t you want to get married someday?” Brandon asked.

   “We’ve never talked about it before,” Nick said.

   “I just thought-” Brandon said.

   “No, I mean, of course I want to marry you someday, I just wasn’t sure where you were at,” Nick said.

   “Why wouldn’t I want to marry you?” Brandon asked.

   Nick shrugged as Brandon came to lay down next to him, “I guess, you’re too good for me.”

   “What?” Brandon asked.

   “Yeah, I mean, look at you,” Nick said.

   “Wait. I’m seriously so confused right now,” Brandon said, “Where is this coming from?”

   “You’re the complete package,” Nick said, “You’re gorgeous and frankly, the best person I know.”

   “I think the same of you,” Brandon said as he smoothed a curl away from Nick’s face.

   “I just- I want to be someone worthy of being with you,” Nick said.

   “You are,” Brandon said, “I don’t want to be with anyone else, I just want to be with you. I love you.”

   Nick rolled over and lay on Brandon’s chest nuzzling into the warmth of Brandon’s body. “Next time, really?”

   “Yeah, I really want to spend our next cup days as a married couple.”

   “I like the sound of that.”
 

   “Nick! Nick!” Nick was being shaken awake. For a moment he was disoriented as Mat flipped the light on and looked at him concernedly. “You were having a nightmare,” Mat said. For a moment the dream was foggy, but then the memories came back. It should have been him. If he’d stuck around in 2015 then he’d be the one Brandon was marrying. The memory mixed with the beer swirled around in his stomach.

   “Move,” Nick mumbled and pushed past Mat to the bathroom where he hunched over the toilet and threw up.

   Mat made some sympathetic noise from the doorway and readied a glass of water for him.

   “Thanks,” Nick muttered as he accepted the cup without daring to look at Mat. He looked at himself in the mirror, noticing the tear tracks that distorted his face. He was a mess. Fuck. “Sorry,” Nick said as he washed off the evidence.

   “You don’t need to apologize,” Mat said, “I just, what happened?”

   “Just a bad dream, I guess,” Nick said.

   “Do you want to talk about it?” Mat asked.

   “No, it’s fine, besides, you shouldn’t be taking care of me anyways,” Nick said, “You’re the rookie.”

   “Stop, okay, we’re friends, that’s what friends do,” Mat said not allowing any room for Nick to question it.

    “Yeah, thanks,” Nick said as he drank another glass of water.

   “It kind of freaked me out,” Mat said looking down at his hands, “You seemed sad earlier, but you started crying in your sleep and you weren’t snapping out of it.”

   “I’m sorry,” Nick said.

   “No, stop apologizing, I don’t want you to… I just, you seem really sad,” Mat said.

   “I’ll be okay,” Nick said and he knew it was true, he just didn’t know when.

Chapter Text

    Mat sat next to Nick on the flight back home to New York, usually he sat with Tito, but he must have already talked to him because Tito slid into a seat next to Casey near the front. Nick had turned to protest, to let Mat it was okay if he wanted to sit with Tito, but just as he started to say something Mat effectively shut him up with a glare.

    “Ready to go home?” Mat asked.

    “Yeah,” Nick said with a weak smile. Neither of them had slept much after Nick had been woken up last night. The memory of that day had haunted Nick and staved off sleep and Nick was pretty sure that Mat had been too freaked out by the nightmare to fall asleep again. They’d had on early morning SportsCenter playing quietly in the background just to have something to do, but by the time that they boarded the plane Nick wished that he’d tried harder to go back to sleep.

    “You can sleep,” Mat said after they’d taken off, “I’ll wake you up when we get close.”

    “Thanks,” Nick said.

 

    The nap was exactly what Nick needed. It was rare that he was able to sleep on the plane with all the noise that the guys made even when they were trying to be quiet. But the rest was a reprieve from thinking about Chicago and Brandon. Mat was a buffer between him and the rest of the team. A few times during the flight Cal and Johnny had glanced back to check on Nick, but had faced Mat’s scathing glare. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. Nick was older, he was supposed to be the protector, but here Mat was protecting him.  

    “We’re going to land soon,” Mat said as he gently nudged Nick awake a few minutes early so that he could get his bearings.

    “Awww… you guys are so cute,” Tito teased.

    “Fuck off,” Mat said with a smile as Nick yawned.

    Nick had once been used to the teasing. It had even been at the convention, Bickell and Shaw had said that they were in love. It had been joking enough, but it didn’t stop Nick from privately panicking after the panel was over. It was one thing being out to teammates, it was another being out to the world. Now, though, the teasing with Mat just seemed foreign. Tito, though, was a good-natured guy and Nick knew there was no heat behind it; he just wasn’t sure how much Tito knew.

    When they landed, Nick turned his phone on and it began buzzing with non-stop text messages. Brandon (5).

 

    “Can we talk?” Johnny asked after they got off the plane. They were heading back to the rink where they would all disperse to their cars and head back home. Nick couldn’t hold a grudge for his life and Johnny looked surprisingly contrite, and above all else, Nick missed hanging around Johnny.

    “Yeah,” Nick sighed. He could feel Mat’s gaze on him warily, but it was going to be okay. “I’ll see you later Mat,” Nick said as he followed Johnny to the room where they reviewed video.

    “I’m really sorry,” Johnny said when the door shut behind him.

    Nick shrugged, “It’s okay.”

    “No, it’s not, I should have told you, I should have made sure you knew. I just, I didn’t want to be the one to hurt you.”

    “It was so fucking humiliating,” Nick said, “And you guys did nothing.”

    “I know. I’m really sorry. You know, Q and Brandon texted me,” Johnny said, “I didn’t tell them anything, though.”

    “Fuck,” Nick rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, Brandon’s been texting me, Q, though?”

    Johnny laughed dryly, “He always liked you.”

    “Didn’t keep me in Chicago, though,” Nick said.

    “I’m really sorry, though, Nick,” Johnny said.

    “I know, and you’re forgiven,” Nick said, “But drinks are on you for the next month.”

    Johnny lit up, “That I can do.” They went to head out of the room. “Look, I know that now isn’t the best time, but if you ever want to date someone, I know a few guys who would really love to go out with you.”

    “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” Nick said as he pushed open the door and heard a yelp on the other end. He opened the door more tentatively seeing Mat rubbing at his bruised elbow after he’d been hit by the door.

    “Hey,” Nick said, “I thought you already left.” Johnny excused himself and waved goodbye leaving Mat and Nick alone.

    “Sorry, I, uh, I wanted to make sure that everything was okay,” Mat said.

    “How long were you there?” Nick asked.

    “Not long,” Mat clarified, “Just a little bit.”

    Nick nodded, “Okay.”

    Mat paused for a moment and Nick could see him visibly mulling something over in his head. “Did Johnny say something about introducing you to guys?”

    “It’s not really a secret,” Nick shrugged.

    “I didn’t know,” Mat said.

    “I didn’t expect you to,” Nick said, “I mean, I'm out, but I don't bring it up that much.”

    “You could have told me,” Mat said with hurt eking into his voice, “I mean, I would understand better than anyone else.”

    “I know.”

    “So why didn’t you?” Mat asked.

    “I don’t know,” Nick said honestly, “I guess, I didn’t want to have that conversation, again.”

    “I don’t get it,” Mat said, “I was so fucking terrified coming out to you and you rejecting me.”

    “I didn’t,” Nick said.

    “I know that now, but I didn’t then,” Mat said, “It would have been different, though. Those hours were awful, I thought I had lost one of my best friends on the team.”

    “Oh Mat,” Nick said, the fight draining out of him, “I’m sorry.”

    “It’s whatever, but you could have trusted me with it,” Mat said.

    “I know, and I do trust you,” Nick said.

    “Not enough to tell me,” Mat said, “And then what, you end up in a relationship and I’d never even know.”

    “If it was serious I would tell you,” Nick said, “But there’s nobody in my life so it doesn’t matter.”

    “It matters to me,” Mat said looking at Nick in a standoff.

    “What? Why-” Nick started and then he remembered what Johnny said earlier, that Mat had a crush on him. “You like me.”

    “Yeah,” Mat said as he bit on his lip. “I just, I really like you and I didn’t think that was a possibility, but uh, now it is.”

    Nick sighed, he was too tired and emotionally drained for this, but Mat was standing there with a false bravado that he’d seen before important games. He chewed on his lip waiting for Nick to do something.

    “Mat,” Nick started, “I’m not there.”

    “And I understand that,” Mat said, “I just want you to know that I’m an option.”

    “But I’m not,” Nick said. “I’m sorry.”

    Mat swallowed thickly, and Nick could see him try and hide his disappointment, “Okay.”

    “I’m really sorry, Mat,” Nick said and he took a tentative step forward to try and comfort Mat, but Mat recoiled.

    “We’re still friends, right?” Mat asked.

    “Of course,” Nick said.

    “Great, well I’ll see you tomorrow,” Mat said with a false cheeriness that made Nick’s stomach churn. Mat was twenty. He wasn’t in the mood for a serious relationship. He should be with someone his own age, someone who hadn’t dated their teammate, someone who wasn’t still in love with their ex almost three years later. Nick had made the right decision. Mat deserved better, but as he drove home, he just tried to convince himself that he was right.

Chapter Text

   Nick considered bringing Mat something as a peace offering at practice, but that might give mixed signals. Nick wasn’t an option for Mat and he didn’t want to do anything to suggest otherwise. He fully expected it to be awkward when he arrived in the locker room if Mat already was there. Mat had come into practice with Seids and he was already pulling on his gear to get on the ice early

   “Hey, Nick,” Mat said with an easy smile.

   “Hi,” Nick said slowly as he headed towards his locker. Mat was chatting with Tito who seemed unaffected. Nick wasn’t sure what he’d expected, maybe some awkwardness, he even anticipated that Tito might give him the cold shoulder, but instead everything was normal.

   Mat was acting so normal throughout the practice that Nick was forced to wonder if he’d imagined their conversation the day before.

   “Hey, um, are you okay?” Nick asked after practice.

   “Yeah, why not?” Mat asked.

   “Just, after yesterday…” Nick said, “I could have handled it better.”

   “It’s fine,” Mat said with his media smile.

   “Um, okay,” Nick said.

   “Besides, there’s a cute guy at the coffee shop where I usually stop in the mornings,” Mat said.

   “That’s great,” Nick said but felt a weight settle in his stomach.

   “Yeah, so no worries,” Mat said, “But, uh, did you want to grab lunch with us.”

   “Sure, if that’s okay,” Nick said.

   “Yeah, of course,” Mat said.

   And it was okay. A bunch of them had all grabbed lunch at some salad place that their nutritionist had highly suggested and it was a regular conversation. Mat was completely unfazed, and Nick wondered if it really was that simple. Mat accepted the rejection and moved along. If only it was that easy for him, Nick thought. He’d have been over Brandon a long time ago. But his mind wandered back to what Andrew had told him, that Mat wasn’t one to settle down. Maybe his feelings truly were as salient as Andrew thought.  

 

   Nick had texted Johnny to see if he could come over after the lunch. The kids were out of the house with his wife and they’d be able to talk privately. Besides, Johnny was the only one who knew about all of this

   “You were right,” Nick told Johnny while he sat on the couch.

   “That’s a first, what about?” Johnny asked.

   “Mat does like me, or at least he did,” Nick said.

   “Huh,” Johnny said.

   “That’s it?” Nick said.

   “I’m not really surprised,” Johnny said, “Why? What happened after we talked?”

   “Mat and I kind of had a fight, or something, I don’t really know, but he didn’t know that I was gay beforehand, and anyways it came out that he was interested in me.”

   “So, what are you going to do?” Johnny asked.

   “Nothing,” Nick said, “It wouldn’t work out. He’s too young, he’s a teammate, there are a million reasons, take your pick.”

   “I think you guys would make a good couple,” Johnny said.

   “What?” Nick asked.

   “Okay, so a couple of things, firstly he’s an adult, yes, he’s younger, but not much younger and it’s fine. Secondly, him being a teammate shouldn’t be an issue. Whatever happened in Chicago, that’s the past, not here. The team wouldn’t let anything happen to you, either of you, not for that. So I think if you’re interested you should go for it.”

   “Am I the only one responsible?” Nick asked.

   “Do you like him?” Johnny asked.

   “He’s twenty,” Nick said.

   “Okay, let’s put that aside for right now, do you like him? Because you’ve come up with all of these reasons why it wouldn’t work out, but you’ve never once said that you weren’t interested.”

   “It’s not that simple,” Nick said.

   “It could be?” Johnny asked.

   “I’m not in love with him,” Nick said.

   “And he’s not expecting you to be, but he probably just wants a chance. Look, if the age thing is such a big deal to you then just ask him to wait. He turns twenty-one in a few months, and so just explain that to him,” Johnny said, “I just, you deserve to be happy and I think that Mat could be really good for you.”

   “I don’t know,” Nick said.

   “Just consider it okay, and maybe try and talk about this with Mat,” Johnny said.

 

   So Nick drove around for a little while to clear his head. Johnny made it seem so simple, but there were other considerations. Of course, he thought Mat was attractive, anyone could see that Mat was attractive and they were friends, but that was almost reason enough not to consider anything. Nick and Brandon had never been just friends. Not really, ever since they met there had been a palpable tension between them, and then they’d broken up. But Mat was a constant in his life, and he didn’t want to jeopardize that. He didn’t want to jeopardize his spot on the team, or the life that he’d built for himself in New York because of feelings. He’d learned that lesson in Chicago, he wasn’t going to repeat it.

   But there was some truth to what Johnny said. It wasn’t easy for them to date and Nick didn’t want to have to wait another ten years until his career was over to be able to date. He liked Mat. He liked Mat, but he was in love with Brandon. The smart thing to do was to go home, but Nick found himself driving over to Seids house. Twenty-one. He could selfishly ask for more time, he could ask Mat to wait.

   Mat’s car was in the driveway. Good, he was home. Nick headed to the front door and knocked, hoping that Mat would answer it instead of Dennis or Rebecca.

   He could hear footsteps behind the door, and Mat opened it. He looked a little surprised to see Nick, but that didn’t compare to the surprise that Nick felt when he looked at him. There were a few bruises scattered around Mat’s neck. They weren’t hockey bruises and they hadn’t been there at lunch earlier. Someone would have pointed it out. Nick knew exactly what they were.

   “Wow,” Nick said.

   “What?” Mat asked.

   “You might want to cover that up,” Nick said pointing to the bruise on Mat’s neck. Instinctively, Mat’s hand moved to conceal it.

   “Oh, shit,” Mat said.

   “It’s fine,” Nick said.

   “Um, it’s not-”

   “Mat, I don’t care,” Nick said, “You can do whatever you want.”

   “What were you going to say?” Mat asked.

   “Oh, just that some of us were planning on going to the boxing gym again tomorrow and I was wondering if you wanted to join.”

   “Are you going to prank me again?” Mat asked.

   “No, we’ll spare you,” Nick said.

   “Uh, sure,” Mat said, “I’ll go. Did you come all that way to just ask me that?”

   “I wanted to see if you were okay, but apparently you are more than fine,” Nick said.

   “That’s not fair,” Mat said.

   “It’s fine,” Nick said and shrugged, “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

Chapter Text

    The bruises on Mat’s neck hadn’t faded by practice. If anything, they’d become more mottled and contrasting to his pale skin. Johnny had done a double take when he saw them, Nick was his eyes flick over to him with the clear question written on his face. Did you do that? Nick just shook his head. It was just after he’d left the Seidenberg residence that he realized he actually needed to coordinate going to the boxing gym.

    He shouldn’t have even considered Johnny’s advice. It was silly anyways to think that Mat would actually be interested in him. It wasn’t a joke, Nick knew that. Mat wasn’t the type of guy to be so careless and hurtful to play around with someone’s feelings. But it hadn’t even been a full day since they had had that talk and he had already hooked up with someone. Maybe it was the coffee shop guy.

    Nick knew rationally that he had no leg to stand on for this matter. He had rejected Mat. Mat wasn’t his. He had no right to be upset or jealous about this, he knew that rationally. But that didn’t stop the hurt from gnawing at his stomach. The season, though, was wrapping up and the break from seeing Mat would be good. It would give them both space to get over whatever it was between them. Not that Mat needed it. He seemed fine. It was five of them going to the gym, Johnny and Nick took one car and Dennis had piled Scott and Mat into his family car and they drove separately.

    Nick knew the minute they started driving Johnny would launch into the questions that had been on his mind since practice.

    “Those were hickeys that Mat had right?” Johnny asked.

    “Yup,” Nick said.

    “And that wasn’t you?” Johnny asked.

    “Nope,” Nick replied.

    “What the fuck?” Johnny said. “So he tells you that he’s into you and the next day he hooks up with someone else?”

    “I guess,” Nick shrugged, “Apparently he got over it really quickly,” Nick said as he stared at the road.

    “That’s really fucked up,” Johnny said.

    “It’s not like he cheated or anything,” Nick said.

    “Yeah, but he tells you he’s interested and then hooks up with someone right after,” Johnny said.

    “He has every right to,” Nick said, “He’s single and young.”

    “He shouldn’t have done that to you,” Johnny said, “Not after everything that happened between you and, well, Brandon.”

    “I went over to Seids house to talk to him yesterday, and that had already happened,” Nick said.

    “What were you going to say?” Johnny asked.

    “I was going to talk to him, at least make sure we were on the same page, but I don’t even think we were in the same book.”

    “Fuck, I’m sorry. Don’t listen to me from now on,” Johnny said.

    Nick actually laughed at that, “Like this will stop you.”

    “You’re right, it won’t,” Johnny said.

    They arrived just before Dennis pulled up and joined them. Scott was oblivious to the tension, but Nick was pretty sure that Dennis had noticed. You don’t have three kids and not notice when something is wrong.

    Johnny wasn’t mean to Mat, but he certainly wasn’t as friendly and joking as usual. It was clear where his allegiance lay in this matter, and despite the relief that Nick felt that someone was on his side, this was exactly why he shouldn’t get involved with teammates. By this point, Nick was pretty sure that everyone had noticed the bruises on Mat’s neck, even Scotty, who was one of the most oblivious people that Nick had ever met.

    Every so often, Nick’s eyes trailed over to Mat and especially the bruises on his neck. It wasn’t better when one of the guys at the gym came over and started talking to Mat, gently grabbing onto his upper arm in the friendly-yet-interested way that Nick had seen too many times before. It was something that he’d even done towards

    What the fuck? Johnny mouthed over at him watching as Mat leaned into the conversation, accepting pointers for how best to hold his stance. Nick just rolled his eyes. Andrew had been right. Mat wasn’t really the type to settle down. It had been less than two days and Mat already had at least two guys waiting in the wings.

    And so, they practiced in the gym, making Nick’s lie at least a little more convincing and getting him out of a difficult conversation with Mat about what he actually had been coming to the Seidenberg house for in the first place.

    “That was good, thanks for inviting me,” Mat said after they’d wrapped up and he was drenched in sweat.

    “You’re welcome,” Nick said.

    “And, uh, thanks for not pranking me this time,” Mat said.

    “It’s fine,” Nick said.

    “Hey-”

    “Nick, you ready to head out?” Johnny interrupted clearly watching the conversation.

    “Well, I better go,” Nick said, “I’m his ride.”

    He dropped Johnny off, thankful when he hadn’t mentioned any more about Mat and whatever he was doing. His phone had continued to go off throughout the drive. Without a doubt, it was Brandon still texting him. He pulled into his garage and fished out his phone. Brandon (23). He sighed and clicked on the thread scrolling down to the last message.

    For what it’s worth, I still want you to come back home. Brandon had written. Nick winced. Chicago wasn’t home.  New York wasn’t home either. It was just another reminder of that painful conversation that Nick had had in Chicago.  He didn’t know how to respond. He didn’t know how he could have Brandon in his life and not as his boyfriend. So he didn’t. He just closed out of the messages and put his phone away.

 

    The season ended without much fanfare. They didn’t make the playoffs, though as the season came to a close, nobody was surprised. Nick should have been used to the disappointment by now, but another season that didn’t end with a playoff rush was just another season where he’d head back to Minnesota. He’d allowed himself a few days to stay in New York after locker cleanouts but then he’d bought his ticket home for the summer.

    “Would it be okay to come to Minnesota the first week of July?” Mat asked after the media left on clean out day.

    “Oh, uh, I wasn’t sure if you still wanted to come,” Nick said.

    “Yeah, I mean, if that’s still okay,” Mat said, now seeming unsure.

    “Yeah, yeah it’s fine. I mean, things will probably be busy for you, but I’ll pretty much be in Minnesota the entire time,” Nick said.

    “I don’t have much, I mean a few tentative things.”

    “Things will be crazy after you win the Calder though,” Nick said.

    “That’s not… the nominations haven’t even come out yet,” Mat said.

    “Yeah, but ask anyone and you’re going to be nominated, and they’re dumb if they don’t pick you.”

    “Well, you should be getting the Norris,” Mat said.

    “I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Nick said with a smile, “But I’m pretty sure you’re the only one who thinks that. But, yeah come to Minnesota if you still have time for us mere mortals,” Nick joked.

    The smile that had been on Mat’s face slipped, “You know that’s not true.”

    “Yeah,” Nick said.

    “The Calder would be great to win, but that’s not going to change anything,” Mat said, and Nick truly thought Mat believed it. But there were several things up in the air, John was going to sign somewhere this summer, Mat was going to win the Calder, and the team would be shuffled around with new trades. Come fall, nothing was going to be the same. “So that first week in July?”

    “After the fourth is fine,” Nick said, “I’ll pick you up from the airport.”

    “Okay, I’ll see you then,” Mat said and that was the last time that Nick saw him before heading home to Minnesota.  

 

    Then three things happened in succession that changed everything. Mat won the Calder Trophy. John signed with Toronto. And Sportsnet published the article “Nick Leddy to Chicago Blackhawks? Blackhawks make moves to reunite Stanley Cup winning team. Is Islander’s Leddy their next target?”

Chapter Text

   The first few weeks were spent mostly getting reacquainted to the pace of the offseason. Nick’s mornings were spent sleeping in, followed by a workout, and then he’d usually meet up with friends and chat up over dinner and drinks. He didn’t talk to Mat. During the offseason, hockey friendships seemed to disappear over the distance. They all needed a break from each other after months of seeing each other daily.

   The week prior to the NHL awards, Nick had seen InstaStories of Tito and Mat in Las Vegas. Are you in Vegas? He’d texted Tito.

   Yeah, here for the awards. Of course, Tito had gone with Mat to the awards. That made sense to Nick, someone like Mat belonged with Tito. They were both young, goofy, and easygoing. The toll of years of hard work gone by the wayside hadn’t gotten to them yet, they made sense. Mat and Nick didn’t.

   “Are you going to watch the NHL Awards?” His mom had asked him as the day approached. She knew that Mat was up for the Calder- nobody had been surprised by that. But she also didn’t know everything that had happened between them – or at least what had almost happened.

   “Probably,” Nick said, “Nothing else on.” That was a yes, though. He’d seen almost every news outlet predict that Mat would win. He grabbed a bowl of popcorn and his whole family trickled into the living room to watch the awards. Every time they panned to Mat in the crowd, he looked nervous. Thankfully, the Calder Trophy was announced relatively early and Nick saw Mat visibly relax as he stood up to accept the honor. He’d jumped up in excitement, accidentally tipping the popcorn bowl on the couch and causing his brother to take the bowl from him.

   “Nick,” his mom had chastised, but Nick couldn’t help it. Mat had won. It came as no surprise to him that Mat had won, in fact, nobody should have been surprised, but it was the affirmation that the rest of the world saw what Nick saw, what they Islanders saw, and deemed Mat worthy. Mat hugged his family and they reached over to hug Tito. Tito was beaming as Mat took to the stage and for a moment, Nick wondered if Tito was yet another person that Mat had moved onto. But he shrugged off the thought and watched Mat accept the award.

   Mat’s speech was short, sweet, and a little awkward, very much like him.

   Congrats, glad the world sees what we’ve known all along, Nick texted. Mat’s response wasn’t immediate, nor was Nick expecting it. He knew that Mat would be shepherded to press conferences and would have to field questions and congratulations. It didn’t take as long, though, as Nick had anticipated for Mat to reply. He was sure that Mat’s phone must have been full of congratulatory messages from family, childhood friends, and past and current teammates, but Mat had replied while Nick was still awake, after the broadcast had ended.

   See you on the stage soon, future Norris winner. Mat replied.

 

   When Nick’s phone started buzzing on July 1st, he didn’t even have to look to know it was about JT. He’d kept his cards close to his chest, but as the summer continued, Nick was almost certain that John wasn’t going to resign. Most of the messages were in the same vein, did you know? Nick and John had never been close friends, sure they got along, they’d been teammates for years, but John was never someone that Nick had felt the need to keep in touch with over the summer. So no, Nick hadn’t known, but he’d wondered. Part of him resented it, John had all but considered the Islanders to have no future and what did that mean for everyone who was stuck in a contract, but another part of Nick couldn’t blame him. At the end of the day, they all wanted to win trophies and the Islanders hadn’t even been close since John had been drafted.

   The problem, whether the others realized it or not, was the John’s absence left a void. Not only was he their captain, but he’d been their best player. Without him Nick knew the focus would shift to Anders and him to be team leaders and he knew that Mat would now shoulder the expectations of the franchise. Winning the Calder was a sign that Mat would be the future of the Islanders, but losing JT mean that Mat had become the face of the Islanders and that wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair for someone entering his sophomore season to carry the weight of the team. Nick wasn’t sure if Mat realized that things had changed, but Nick didn’t want to be the one to tell him. He wanted him to be able to soak in the rookie excitement as long as possible.

 

   The final thing that happened, just two days after John’s signing to the Maple Leafs had driven the Islanders into chaos, Sportsnet released an article predicting that Nick would return to the Blackhawks. He wouldn’t have known if Brandon hadn’t texted him asking if it was true with a link to the article.

   “Nick Leddy to Chicago Blackhawks? Blackhawks make moves to reunite Stanley Cup winning team. Is Islander’s Leddy their next target?”

   Sources close to the New York Islander say the defender, 27, is looking for a trade. Given Chicago’s recent trades to bring back Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger, a Leddy trade might be in the future. A source close to Leddy said, “Since Tavares left, the Islanders have been in a state of disarray. Players aren’t expecting good seasons in the next few years and Nick’s looking for other options.”

   Nick rolled his eyes. Any “sources” close to him knew better than to talk to Sportsnet. He knew that in the offseason hockey blogs got bored, but he never thought that he’d be interesting enough to fuel a rumor.

   Not to my knowledge. Nick replied. He didn’t think much of the article after he closed out of the tab. He’d resigned with New York for a reason, and even though he’d considered returning to Chicago it was circumstantial to Brandon being available. He wasn’t. If he couldn’t be with Brandon, then Chicago didn’t have any more allure than Arizona. He didn’t think much of the rumor considering they all knew better than to read their own articles.

   When he was woken up at six in the morning, though, Nick reconsidered not addressing the rumors. He rushed down the stairs thinking it was an emergency and opened the door to see a frantic Mat on the opposite side.

   “I thought you were coming later this week,” Nick said.  

   “Is it true?” Mat asked.

   “Is what true?” Nick asked, still trying to wake up and get his bearings.

   “Are you going back to Chicago?”

   “Did you read the article?” Nick sighed and propped open the door to allow Mat to come in. The early visit must have been a spur decision because Mat had just brought a small suitcase that could have been a carry-on. He clearly hadn’t slept on the flight and Nick could tell he was even more anxious than when he had been at the NHL Awards.

   “Please don’t go,” Mat said, “I know this isn’t fair for me to ask, but please don’t go back to them. I know we didn’t make the playoffs this year and I know you want to win, we all do, but we lost JT, and I can’t lose you, too. And I wish that I could promise you that things will be different this year, but I can’t. I can’t promise you anything, but please don’t go.”

   “Mat, calm down,” Nick said.

   “I know New York isn’t home yet for you, but you’ve helped make New York my home and I just can’t imagine you not being there,” Mat said.

   “I’m not going anywhere,” Nick said.

   “What?” Mat asked.

   “That article was completely made up,” Nick said.

   “But the source…”

   “I think they just needed to write an article,” Nick said.

   “So, you don’t want to go back to Chicago?” Mat asked.

   “I did,” Nick answered honestly, “But it was conditional, if I could have gotten back with my ex then I was going to see if I could be traded, but that’s no longer a possibility so I’m not looking to leave New York.”

   A flicker of emotions crossed Mat’s face. “Was it serious?”

   “We had discussed marriage, so yeah,” Nick said, “Sorry, I shouldn’t be talking about this with you.”

   “No, it’s fine,” Mat said, “Are you over him?”

   “No, but I think I will be, eventually,” Nick said with a wan smile.

   Mat seemed to realize how early it was and that he’d arrived unexpected because the good-Canadian boy side seemed to take over, “I just kind of panicked, I’m sorry, I should have at least called.”

   “It’s fine, you just have to put up with us for Fourth of July,” Nick said with a smile, “Let’s get you set up in the guest room and then we can talk more later, okay.”

Chapter Text

    Mat came out of the guest room a few hours later looking a little sheepish and more refreshed. “Hey,” Mat said.

    “Hey,” Nick replied, “Did you want something to eat?”

    “I mean, if that’s okay,” Mat said.

    “Sure, is a late breakfast okay?” Nick asked.

    “You can cook?” Mat asked and smiled as he watched Nick grab a few ingredients from the fridge.

    “Of course, you underestimate me. My mom made me learn the basics before I headed off to college, and then, you know, I got used to it.”

    “All those Minnesota boys staying over for the morning after,” Mat said and Nick could sense that Mat was trying to create an opening but he ignored it.

    Nick was glad his back was turned to Mat because he was pretty sure that Mat would notice the blush creeping up his cheeks.

    “Not too many of those,” Nick said. There had been two hookups since he’d been back. Well, one actual hook up and one almost hook up, that had never made it back to his place.

    “So, I’m not going to have to beat them off with a stick?” Mat asked, “I think I watched a video calling you the ‘Pride of Minnesota’.”

    Nick rolled his eyes, recalling the exact video that had been filmed the year he won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. His brother had sent him the link with a few laughing emojis. He had only been ‘The Pride of Minnesota’ as long as he could bring the cup home. Now that the prospects of the Islanders winning seemed less likely, Nick was pretty sure he’d had that title revoked.

    The eggs and bacon didn’t take long to cook and Nick divided them up between two plates, him taking the smaller portion and handing Mat his meal.

    “Enjoy,” Nick said.

    “You aren’t eating?” Mat asked as he looked at the small plate of eggs that Nick had in front of him.

    “I already ate,” Nick said as he shrugged, “But I figured I’d keep you company.”

    “You didn’t have to cook- thank you,” Mat said.

    “You’re welcome. So how does it feel being a Calder winner?” Nick asked.

    “A lot like not being a Calder winner,” Mat said with a smile.

    “You’re in good company,” Nick said.

    “It still feels kind of surreal,” Mat said, “Like, I barely even remember that weekend.”

    Nick smiled.

    “It was just all so crazy,” Mat said, “I wish you could have been there.”

    “I wasn’t invited,” Nick reminded him, though not unkindly.

    “Would you have come?” Mat asked, “If you had been invited?”

    “Mat…” Nick said.

    “Right,” Mat stiffened, and Nick’s stomach just churned knowing that he’d caused that. He wasn’t sure how to follow that up though. He hadn’t been invited. Mat had hooked up with someone the day after he told Nick that he liked him. He didn’t forget that. It didn’t seem to matter much if he was there or if JT had gone or if any other teammate had joined Mat and Tito at the Awards Ceremony.

    “Uh, I had a workout planned for this morning, but other than that I’m free if you want to do something,” Nick said.

    “Could I join you?” Mat asked.

    “Uh, sure, I just thought you might be too tired,” Nick said.

    “I’m good, I still have stamina,” Mat said. Nick’s eyes widened and Mat seemed to realize the double innuendo, “I mean for workouts.”

    “It’s fine,” Nick said and waved off the suggestion.

    They got changed and headed to the gym where Nick spent his summers. It was different from the season- the rigor of the workout strained their muscles, but it was a competition between the two of them. Nick glanced over at Mat as he followed the trainer’s instructions watching to see just the slightest hint of struggle or fatigue.

    By the end of the hour and a half session, both Mat and Nick’s shirts clung to their skin.

    “See, I told you I’d be fine,” Mat said as they headed to the locker room to shower and get changed.

    “Yeah, surprisingly, red eye and then a workout,” Nick said.

 

    The rest of their afternoon was quiet, Nick was acutely aware that Mat had arrived just that morning. Nick had cooked a simple dinner; Mat had offered to help, but despite the fact that Tito swore Mat had a few good recipes in his arsenal, Nick wasn’t sure.

     “Are you up for drinks later tonight?” Nick asked.

    Mat looked at him, “Seriously?”

    Nick shrugged, “Why not? We worked out, it’s the offseason, you’re legal, besides it’s practically Minnesota culture.”

    “Okay, yeah,” Mat said.

    “There’s a place nearby, it’s owned by a friend of a friend and it’s a good place for people like us,” Nick said.

    “What? For hockey players or…” Mat trailed off.

    “Both,” Nick said.

    “Do you go there often?” Mat asked.

    “I used to, haven’t been there too much recently,” Nick said, “But they have some good IPAs.”

    “Oh my god, I can’t believe you just said that.”

    “What?”

    “Commenting about IPAs,” Mat rolled his eyes but smiled.

    “What? They’re good,” Nick protested.

    “Between you and Scott, we’ll all just be drinking IPAs from now on.”

 

    Nick drove them to the bar, grabbing one of the back tables to afford them some privacy. There were a few baseball games playing on the TVs over them. The bar was much more crowded when football was going on, but for now it was just mostly regulars.

    “So is this what you usually do?” Mat asked.

    “A couple of high school buddies and I will grab drinks at least once a week, most though are getting married now and a few who were a little older than me even have kids so it’s not as easy as it once was. What do you want to drink?”

    “I’ll try one of the IPAs that you recommend.”

    “Hey Nick, back in town for the summer?” One of Nick’s old high school friends, Tim,  asked. Nick recognized him immediately and smiled. He was one of the ones who’d known about and met Brandon almost at the beginning.

    “Hey,” Nick said with a smile.

    “Is this the new one?” Mat’s guard seemed to have gone up when they’d been approached, but Nick tried to give him a reassuring smile.

    “No, he’s just a teammate visiting me for the week,” Nick said.

    “Hey, I’m Tim, nice to meet you,” Tim said to Mat who cautiously shook his hand. “Well, if you’re interested, I know a few people who might want to grab beers with you some time, Nick.”

    Nick glanced back to Mat who seemed to have frozen, “I’m good, but thanks, we should catch up soon, though.”

    “Sorry about that,” Nick said after Tim headed back to the group that he’d come with.

    “Do you bring your boyfriends here?” Mat asked.

    Nick shrugged as he took a sip of his beer, “Only one really, but it’s not, like, a thing.”

    Mat seemed a little off, but Nick couldn’t pinpoint it. He wasn’t even sure if he was imagining it or if Mat was just tired, but they were on their second beers when Mat glanced around, never having fully relaxed since they arrived.

    “People are staring at us,” Mat said.

    “They’re looking at you,” Nick said.

    “What?” Mat asked.

    “I mean you’re safe here, we’re fine, but me, I’m old news. They all know me, you, on the other hand, are new and interesting. We can leave if you want, though,” Nick said.

    “No, it’s fine, we just, we won’t end up on Deadspin, right?”

    “We won’t end up on Deadspin, I promise,” Nick said.

    A guy who’d passed by their table for the third time seemed to finally muster up the courage to approach them, well, Mat really, when he stood up to grab them another round. Nick watched the interaction from a far, almost surprised that it took this long for someone to start chatting up Mat.

    It was only a few moments before Mat returned with their beers shaking his head.

    “What?”

    “Nothing,” Mat said.

    “You know you could have gone with him,” Nick said, “If you wanted.”

    “Well, I don’t,” Mat snapped, “Unbelievable,” he muttered under his breath.

    “What?” Nick asked.

    “Nothing, it’s fine,” Mat said, “Let’s just finish this round and go home.”

    Nick sighed and nodded, left with the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that he’d spoiled the evening.

Chapter Text

   Mat nearly pushed his way through the door the moment after Nick opened it. There was no room for debate and Nick was pretty sure that Mat didn’t want to talk or at least wasn’t ready to, so he gave him some space. He took a look at the mail that he’d just dropped on the table as they had been heading out to the bar. Most of it was junk, but in the middle of the pile was a card with a thicker envelope- the type of stationary that people bought for special occasions. When he looked at the sender his heart sank. Brandon. He ripped open the seal and fished out the inside, though he was almost certain that he knew what was inside. There was a wedding invitation inside with the elegantly printed cursive that feigned a handwritten letter. Behind the invitation was an envelope for RSVPs, but inside the whole package Brandon had left a post-it note. I know it’s late, but I hope you can come. I want you there. Nick knew the invitation was an afterthought. He was an afterthought. Nobody got married and sent invitations out with only three months notice; Nick just wasn’t sure what it meant.

   If his brother was here, he’d have told Nick to just throw it out. He had liked Brandon, he still liked Brandon, but when the break-up happened, brothers sided with brothers, casting all loyalties aside. Nick knew he probably shouldn’t go, but Brandon had asked, and even now, even after all this time, he was never good at saying no to Brandon. Nick figured he’d just text his RSVP to Brandon if he did end up going. After all, they always had an extra place setting or two at weddings like these.

   “That was really shitty, you know,” Mat said.

   “What?” Nick asked as he turned to see where Mat stood, putting the wedding invitation down with a flop.

   “At the bar, that was really shitty, what you did,” Mat said.

   “What did I do?” Nick asked.

   “You know how I feel about you, and you just suggested that I go off with some stranger to hook up with,” Mat said.

   “That’s the reason that you’re pissed off?” Nick asked, “You’re mad at me because I said that you could hook up with someone who was interested in you. I wanted to make sure that you knew it was okay with me.”

   “Yeah, and that’s the problem isn’t it, you’re completely okay with me hooking up with people, you don’t care.”

   “What did you want me to do, Mat? We’re not dating, you can do whatever you want.”

   “But I want a reason not to, don’t you get it,” Mat said.

   “You’re the one who told me you liked me and then turned around to hook up with the next person that gave you attention. And that’s fine, whatever, but you can’t ask me to take you seriously and then hook up with someone the next day. Wait, it wasn’t even a full day was it, it took you literally less than a day to move on, so sorry for not taking your feelings seriously when you made it clear that whatever you felt, or thought you felt for me was insignificant.”

   “You’re the one who rejected me, you’re the one who wasn’t interested in me. It should matter what I do afterwards,” Mat said.

   “But I changed my mind,” Nick said.            

   Mat’s face froze, “What?”

   “It was never a question of whether I’m interested in you or not, of course I’m interested,” Nick said.

   Mat looked at him skeptically, like he was waiting for the punchline for a shitty joke, “Why did you say you weren’t an option then?”

   “Because I thought it was the right thing to do,” Nick said.

    “But you changed your mind?” Mat asked.

   “Yeah,” Nick said, “I mean, the minute I said that, I regretted it, I felt like I was making a huge mistake, but I was trying to be responsible: you were twenty years old and I was still in love with someone else. It was a recipe for disaster. I wasn’t going to date you when you were twenty, I still wouldn’t, but I told Johnny and he thought I was being stupid. That’s why I came over that day, though, I was going to ask you to just give me some time, for me to move on, for you to turn twenty-one.”

   “And then…”

   “And by then you’d already moved on to someone else,” Nick said bitterly, “Which, I know, I don’t get to be mad about, but it still sucked. Here I was going dealing with my own shit and you had just moved on…”

   “I didn’t move on,” Mat said, “I mean, I did hook up with someone, yeah, but he wasn’t important, he wasn’t-”

   “It’s fine, but, yeah,” Nick said, “I guess I was just trying to show you how okay I was with everything, and I guess, try and convince myself I was okay with you being with other guys.”

   “What if I’m not okay with that?” Mat asked, “I still want you, I still want to be with you, that hasn’t changed for these couple of months.”

   “Mat, I’m not over him yet,” Nick said.

   “But you said you thought that you could be,” Mat said.

    “Yeah,” Nick said.

   “Then just give me a chance, that’s all I’m asking. Please, if you’re interested in me, just give us a chance,”

   “There’s a lot of reasons why we shouldn’t…” Nick said though he could feel his resolve crumbling.

   “I know, and we can talk about them, but I can think of just as many reasons why we should,” Mat said.

    “Okay, but slowly, okay,” Nick said.

   “Slowly,” Mat promised but smiled with the first genuine grin that Nick had seen since he’d arrived, probably since he won the Calder in Vegas. “We’ll go slowly,” Mat promised and closed the distance between them.

   He was just two steps away and it still felt too far for Nick. He turned and cupped his hand on Mat’s cheek, “Slowly,” Nick promised as he kissed Mat. For a split second, Mat seemed surprised but gently leaned into the kiss. He threaded his fingers in Nick’s hair and when they finally pulled apart, Mat smiled softly, “Slowly.”

Chapter Text

   “Did you want to spend the fourth with us?” Nick asked Mat over breakfast.

   Mat just looked up from his cereal, “Are you sure? I know it wasn’t really planned for me to be here.”

   “Yeah, I mean, I know it isn’t a big deal for you, but it’ll be pretty quiet,” Nick said.

   “I thought we were taking it slow,” Mat said.

   “I mean, it’s whatever you want it to be, it doesn’t have to be anything more than having dinner at my parents’ house and watching fireworks. Some friends will be there, but they’re all people that I’ve grown up with, and then you know my brother,” Nick said.

   “But I haven’t met them as your boyfriend,” Mat said.

   Nick stilled for a moment.

   “I mean that’s what we are, right?” Mat asked.

   “Yeah, it’s just kind of weird hearing it,” Nick said, “Look, you can come as my boyfriend, or as my teammate that’s visiting, or you could stay here and I’ll make it short, I just want you to be comfortable.”

   “I’ll go, but just as a friend, for now, okay, I’m not ready to, you know.”

   “Okay,” Nick said, “I’ll let my family know that you’re coming.”

   “Only if it’s not too much of an intrusion though,” Mat said.

   “Not at all, are you kidding, my mom always wants Tyler and I to bring more friends home.”­ As predicted, when Nick called his parents up to tell them that Mat would be joining them, his mother was enthusiastic that he was bringing a new friend over.

  

   “Should we stop and get wine?” Mat asked as they got ready to head over.

   “No,” Nick said with a smile, “It’s fine.”

   “I just- I want to make a good impression,” Mat said.

   “My brother pretty much has a crush on your hockey already,” Nick said as he rolled his eyes, “And besides you’re not meeting them as my boyfriend, you’re meeting them as my teammate and friend, it’s a whole different type of expectations, besides, I’m going to be there.” He reached over and squeezed Mat’s hand, “It’ll be good.”

   Mat didn’t seem reassured by the time they arrive at Nick’s parents’ house, but Nick tried to reassure him that everything was going to be just fine. His mother had been waiting for them to arrive and she greeted Mat was a hug that seemed to take him aback. “Hi Mat, so glad that you could join us. I didn’t know you were in Minnesota.”

   “He wanted to visit and meet with my trainer,” Nick explained easily skimming over the fact that Mat had come early, trying to stop Nick from moving to a different team. His mom seemed a little confused but accepted his explanation despite knowing that Mat had coaches back in Vancouver.

   Tyler was already there with some of their childhood friends and smiled when he noticed that Nick and Mat had arrived. Nick and Mat made their way through introductions and as Nick had predicted, his friends and family warmly welcomed Mat. Mat was busy talking about youth hockey when Nick finally saw his brother alone. “I’ll grab some beers,” Nick said as he temporarily left Mat’s side. Tyler smiled as Nick approached him, finally getting some time to catch up since Mat had arrived.

   “I got invited to Brandon’s wedding,” Nick said.

   “Are you fucking kidding me?” Tyler asked.

   “Nope, I got the invitation in the mail yesterday.”

   Tyler shook his head.

   “What?” Nick asked, “You like Brandon.”

   “I liked Brandon, but I hate what he does to you,” Tyler said, “And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s intentional and probably a part of him is still in love with you, but he needs to stop.”

   “I actually, I tried to get back with him a couple of months ago,” Nick said.

   “You didn’t.”

   “Not my best moment,” Nick sighed, “But it’s all good now.”

   “Really?” Tyler asked.

   “Yeah,” Nick sighed.

   “Are you dating him?” Tyler asked nodding towards Mat who was still busy talking to Nick’s neighbor. Nick’s silence was confirmation enough for his brother.

   “Seriously?”

   “He’s someone who I think I could really love one day,” Nick said with a small smile.

   “Really?” Tyler asked, “That’s…a lot.”

   Nick turned and saw a frown on Tyler’s face, “What?”

   “Nothing,” Tyler said.

   “You don’t think it’s a good idea.”

   “I just want you to be happy,” Tyler said.

   “But you don’t like it,” Nick said.

   “He’s going to break your heart,” Tyler said, “If this is a thing, or becomes a thing, he will break your heart.”

   “You don’t know him,” Nick said.

   “I know guys like him,” Tyler said, “Look, he seems like a great guy, but he’s, what, twenty-one years old. Has he even been in a relationship before?”

   “He is a great guy,” Nick said.

   “I didn’t say he wasn’t,” Tyler said, “But I know you and when you fall for someone, you fall hard and I don’t know if you and he could be on the same page. I don’t want what happened with Brandon to happen again, it’s been years and you’re still in love with him.”

   “I’m fine, I’m over Brandon, I’m going to his wedding,” Nick said.

   “Nick,” Tyler warned, “This is a bad idea.”

   “And it’ll be great. Thanks for your vote of confidence, though.” Nick grabbed the beer that he promised Mat and headed back to his side. It had just been a few minutes, but Nick wanted to make sure that Mat was comfortable.

   “Thanks,” Mat said as he accepted the bottle from Nick. Nick faked a smile in return, but the conversation with Tyler had soured his mood. Mat must have sensed that something was off because as they were filtering outside for the grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, Mat pulled him into a hallway.

   “Are you okay?” Mat asked.

   “Yeah, yeah, everything’s great,” Nick said.

   “Is it me?” Mat asked.

   “No, sorry, I’m just a little tired, that’s all, my family loves you, are you kidding?” Nick said.

   “Yeah?”

   “I’m good,” Nick promised. And he tried harder, it wasn’t Mat’s fault that he and his brother were at odds. For the rest of the meal, though, anytime Tyler glanced over, Nick felt like he was being scrutinized, that his relationship was under a microscope, the relationship that Tyler shouldn’t have even known about.

   “Are you coming with us for fireworks?” one of his high school teammates asked as it started to get dusky.

   Mat glanced over at him, deferring to Nick.

   “Nah, we’re heading out probably,” Nick said.

   “We could have gone to see the fireworks,” Mat said.

   “We still are,” Nick said, “But I kind of wanted to be alone with you, so…”

   Nick drove to an outpost away from where the majority of people were watching the fireworks. It was a little private spot between the trees that he’d found one day that had the perfect vantage point, but was away from everyone else.

   He parked the car and sat in the back of the truck waiting for the first firecrackers to pop. The first thing he did after Mat sat next to him was pull him in for a kiss.  

   “I wanted to do that all day,” Nick said. He didn’t even need the daylight to know that Mat was smiling.

   “Yeah?”

   “I don’t think I could have made it through the fireworks not being able to do that,” Nick said.

   “What would your parents say if they knew that’s why we left?” Mat asked.

   Nick shrugged, “They’d probably be proud that I have the hottest boyfriend in the NHL.”

   “You think I’m hot,” Mat said.

   “You think you’re hot, too,” Nick said. Mat was humble, but he definitely knew how attractive he was.

   “I have a pretty hot boyfriend, too,” Mat said as he kissed Nick again. Nick could get used to this, he thought, as they only broke apart when the first firecrackers popped.

Chapter Text

(Not in a specific order)

1. May I have This Dance (Remix). - Francis and the Lights, Chance the Rapper

2. Please Don't Say You Love Me - Gabrielle Aplin

3. How to be a Heartbreaker- Marina

4. So Good- B.o.B.

5. All of the Lights- Kanye West

6. Latch (Acoustic)- Sam Smith

7. Final Song- MO

8. YOUTH- Troye Sivan

9. I Found You- The Wanted

10. Another Love- Tom Odell

11. Unsteady- X Ambassadors

12. Cross my Mind pt. 2- ARIZONA, Kiiara

13. New Rules- Dua Lipa

14. Something Just Like This- The Chainsmokers, Coldplay

15. This is What It Feels Like- Armin van Buuren, Trevor Guthrie

16. Time After Time- Quietdrive

17. Wild Heart- Bleachers

18. I Know Places- Taylor Swift

19. Stay- Rihanna, Mikky Ekko

20. All Too Well- Taylor Swift

Chapter Text

  “I’m so nervous,” Brandon said as he wiped his palms on his jeans, again.

  “It’ll be fine,” Nick said as he reached over and squeezed Brandon’s hand.

  “Yeah, but this is a big step,” Brandon said.

  “I get it, I was so nervous when I met your family, but they are going to love you,” Nick said.

  “We should have stopped for wine or flowers or something,” Brandon said.

  “It’s fine,” Nick said with a smile, a little in disbelief that his family were the ones to make the usually calm Brandon anxious. “They’re going to love you because I love you.”

  Brandon’s head turned to him. They’d said it to each other before but Nick still got butterflies in his stomach when Brandon said it to him. Brandon still felt the same way.

  “How are you real?” Brandon asked.

  Nick just laughed as they pulled into his family’s driveway. “I promise they’ll love you.”

 

  Nick woke up later than usual, still tired from the late night they’d had the night before. They’d stayed out for a few more hours after the fireworks had ended and for that time, Nick was able to set aside his conversation with Tyler. “I don’t want to go back tomorrow,” Mat said over breakfast.

  “I know,” Nick said, “I don’t want you to either.”

  “You could come visit me,” Mat said.

  “I-” Nick started.

  “Or not, I mean,” Mat backtracked.

  “No, no I want to, but I’m going to a wedding at the end of this month and then I have Laddy’s fishing thing,” Nick said, “You should come to that, though.”

  “I don’t know the first thing about fishing,” Mat said.

  “I’ll teach you,” Nick said.

  “Maybe, I don’t want to have to wait until training camp starts to see you again,” Mat said.

  “It’ll be fun, you’ll like it, I promise,” Nick said.

  “Who’s wedding are you going to?” Mat asked, “Anyone that I know?”

  “Uh, Brandon Saad’s,” Nick said.

  “Oh right, you guys were pretty close when you were with the Hawks, right?”

  Nick tried not to wince. Mat had not idea just how close they had been. He knew that there were still videos fans had taken at the annual convention of them and some old interviews buried in the corners of the internet, but they’d always been careful in public. Their friendship might have seemed different from outside hockey circles, but they’d been careful to maintain the ‘bromance’ appearance.

  “Yeah,” Nick said, “He invited me to the wedding and a bunch of the old guys will probably be there, too.”

  “Are you looking forward to it?” Mat asked.

  “Not really,” Nick said, “It’s just a reminder of a lot of things, but it will be good to see some of the guys again. But it’ll be fine and then afterwards I’ll be heading to BC, so…”

  Mat seemed to recognize the shift in conversation and let Nick steer it away from the wedding. He was grateful that Mat didn’t press it; he couldn’t explain his relationship with Brandon beyond friends- not without talking to him first. Even if Brandon had given him permission to tell Mat, Nick wasn’t sure if he’d want to.

  They spent a lazy afternoon on the couch watching the Minnesota Twins game. As the innings went on, Mat drifted closer to Nick. They’d started off on separate ends of the couch but by the end of the sixth inning, Mat was gently tucked under Nick’s arm.  

  “Are you still a Mariners fan?” Nick asked.

  “Not as much as I used to be, and to be honest, I’ve never really been a baseball fan, but I still keep an eye on them. Hey, uh, did I do something earlier?” Mat asked as he shifted to look Nick in the eye.

  “No,” Nick said.

  “You just… you got really quiet after talking about the Blackhawks,” Mat said.

  Nick swallowed, “I’m a pretty quiet guy, you know that.”

  Mat just stared at him.

  “No, it just is still kind of hard to talk about,” Nick said, “And weddings are a little bit of a sore subject, I guess. It’s hard to see all my teammates getting married by now, and, I just can’t.”

  “Will you be okay to go?” Mat asked.

  “Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Nick said.

  “You can always call,” Mat said, “I’ll pick up.”

  “I know, but I’ll be fine,” Nick said as he pulled Mat closer so that he could rest his head on his shoulder. He gently ran his fingers through Mat’s hair realizing how domestic this all was. Funnily enough, it seemed completely normal.

 

  Mat left the next day without much fanfare. Nick had driven him to the airport having said their official goodbyes in the privacy of Nick’s home. “We’ll see each other in a few weeks, right?” Nick said.

  “Yeah,” Mat said.

  “I’ll be looking forward to it,” Nick said.

  “Me too, I’m really glad I came here,” Mat smiled.

  “I’m glad I could should you around,” Nick said. They’d just kissed for a few minutes in the kitchen, neither of them ready to head to the airport and pretend that they were just friends. At the airport, Mat just waved before heading through security and Nick felt melancholy when he returned home to just his dog. He'd see Mat in August, though, just a few weeks away, he just had to make it through this wedding first. 

Chapter Text

   Tyler kept asking him if he was sure that he wanted to go to Brandon’s wedding, but Nick had already texted him to let him know that he’d be coming and he didn’t plan on backing out. It was as much proof to him as it was to his family that he was fine; he was over Brandon. So he picked out his suit, one of his better gameday ones, and packed a small suitcase before flying out to Chicago.

   Mat had been texting him a countdown until the fishing trip and Nick couldn’t help but smile, this was the last obstacle between seeing Mat.

   He fell asleep on the plane, drifting off almost immediately after they reached altitude.

   “The next time we win the Cup, you and me, I’m gonna ask you to marry me,” Brandon said.

   Nick’s eyes sprang open, “What?”

   “I want to marry you,” Brandon said with a smile, “Not now, of course, we’re too young and our careers are just beginning, and I know that, but the next time that we win a cup together, I want to ask you to marry me.”

   Nick woke up in a cold sweat swallowing thickly when he realized that it had just been a dream. He wondered what it would have been like if they hadn’t waited. What if they’d gotten engaged right after winning the cup? What if they’d gotten married already? Things probably wouldn’t have been so different. Chicago didn’t care about sentimentality, Nick would have still been traded to the Islanders, and they would have been too young at the time to maintain a healthy long-distance marriage. They couldn’t even keep a long-distance relationship. For as much as Nick loved playing in the NHL, he wondered what his life would have been like if he’d retired after winning the cup. They could have made it work that way and he’d achieved his goal. He should have seriously considered it, but at the time, he and Brandon had nothing but time. He’d renewed his contract with the Blackhawks and there was no indication that he was going anywhere.

   Thankfully, the pilot interrupted his train of thought by announcing that they’d soon be landing in Chicago. He made his way to the hotel, one that he’d stayed in before with the Islanders when they came to town. A few people he recognized were already checked into the hotel in preparation for the rehearsal dinner and he was certain that Brandon was somewhere nearby. Thankfully, he got his key card without having to run into Brandon or his fiancée.

   He texted Andrew Shaw on the off chance that he’d already arrived. Andy never arrived early for anything, but now that he had gotten married, his wife usually made him arrive at least on time for things.

   I’m here!!! Andy had texted back.

   Drinks? Was the follow up.

   Give me a few to get downstairs. Nick replied, waiting for Andy at the hotel bar.

   “How are you?” Shaw asked not even bothering to hide the concern in his voice after they’d ordered their first round of beers.

   “I’m good,” Nick said.

   “How are you?”

   “Getting used to Montreal,” he replied rolling his eyes.

   “Freaking out in penalty boxes?” Nick asked.

   “One time. That was one time,” Shaw said, “And the ref made a fucking dumb call, I wasn’t just going to sit there and take it.”

   “Of course, you weren’t.”

   “Seriously, though, are you okay?” Shaw asked.

   “Why does everyone keep asking me,” Nick snapped, “I’m fine, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

   “Sorry, I just thought it’d probably be really hard for you,” Shaw said.

   “I’m dating someone anyways,” Nick said.

   “Really?” Shaw asked, “Is he here?”

   “No,” Nick said.

   “So, is it serious?” Shaw asked.

   “Yeah,” Nick said with a faint smile.

   “Who… oh, God,” Shaw started to laugh, making a few heads turn in their direction, “It’s the kid, isn’t it?”

   “Don’t call him that,” Nick said.

   “Seriously, though? Everyone knows about him,” Shaw said, “That kid doesn’t do serious.”

   “What are you talking about?” Nick snapped.

   “Everyone knows what he did during Juniors,” Shaw said.

   “You weren’t even there,” Nick said.

   “Yeah, but there’s a group chat,” Shaw said.

   “It doesn’t matter,” Nick said, “He’d never cheat.”

   “Maybe, but I know guys like him, I was that guy before I got married,” Shaw said, “He might not cheat, but he’ll get bored. He’s, what, twenty-one? Settling down is the furthest thing from his mind.”

   “You don’t know him,” Nick said.

   “Don’t I?” Shaw said, “I know you though, and already, I can see that you’re really falling for him.”

   “I don’t want to talk about this with you anymore,” Nick said.

   “He’ll hurt you,” Shaw said, “And as your friend, that’s the last thing I want to see happen again.”

   “Fuck you,” Nick said as he fished out his wallet to pay for the beer.

   “Sorry, but you know I’m right,” Shaw said.   

   “You’re not, not this time,” Nick said.

   “He’s a lot like Brandon,” Shaw said, “Hockey comes first, you come second, and you’re older than him. Even if you last, and I hope you do, he’ll still be playing for years after you retire. And he hasn’t won a cup yet, you have. That’s a big difference, you can spend the rest of your career with the Islanders, if he wants to win a Cup he might not be able to. Have you thought about all that?”

   “I’ve changed,” Nick said, “You know that, and God, I’m not saying I want to marry him. It’s just, we’re together now. You could at least pretend to be happy.”

   “I- You’re right, you deserve to be happy and if that’s with him, fine…”

   “But?” Nick prompted, simultaneously curious and dreading what Shaw was going to say.

   “But I don’t think it’s with him,” Shaw said.

   “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Nick said and left Shaw behind at the bar.

   

   Nick clenched his jaw as he waited for the elevator to take him back to his room. Shawsy had pretty much echoed Tyler’s concerns and they were two people who knew him best in the world, or at least they had been. He didn’t care about Mat’s history; Mat wouldn’t cheat, he knew that. But get tired… Nick tried to tamp down that fear, but the doubt was growing in him.

 

   He collapsed back on the bed, hoping to at least get some sleep before the rehearsal dinner when there was a knock on the door.

   “Fuck off, Shawsy,” Nick said.

   The knocking continued, and Nick got up to open it. Instead of Shawsy on the other side, Brandon was there.

   “Sorry, the front desk had said that you’d arrived and I wanted to say hi,” Brandon said with a faint smile.

   “Come on in,” Nick said as he held the door open.

   Brandon didn’t sit down but stood against the wall. “I wasn’t sure that you’d actually come.”

   “I said I would,” Nick said.

   “I know, but the last time we talked didn’t go so well,” Brandon said.

   “Yeah,” Nick replied.

   “I should have told you, I’m sorry,” Brandon said, “It’s just- saying it made it real and I knew it would hurt you and I didn’t want to be the person to do that, again.”

   “I really thought it would have been me and you at the end,” Nick said.

   “Yeah, me too,” Brandon said. “I love my fiancée, she’s the love of my life, but I do wonder sometimes what it would have been like…and you know I still love you, Nick, maybe not the same way, but…”

   “Don’t say that,” Nick said as he closed his eyes.

   “I’m sorry-”

   “Don’t apologize either, just it’s hard enough for me, okay, and I want to be here, but it’s just hard…” Nick said staring at the floor.

   “Just because I’m getting married tomorrow doesn’t cheapen what we had, you know that right?”

   “Yeah,” Nick replied.

   “Okay, I’m really glad you’re here, for what it’s worth,” Brandon said before he left the room. As Nick was left, sitting on the edge of the bed, blinking back tears, he couldn’t help but think that Tyler had been right. He shouldn’t have come.